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Why are there so few women in leadership roles?

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Why are there so few women in leadership positions? Why are men still ahead – especially within the corporate world? And how can we work to make sure that this changes?

These are just a few of the questions being asked at the BBC 100 Women debate on women in leadership, live in London today.

This year, there are only 26 women listed in the Fortune 500. Paltry, yes - but what’s even more depressing, is that this is the highest ever figure for women making the list to date.

Just last month, the World Economic Forum announced that it would take an excruciating 118 years to close the gender pay gap.

Although many insist that 'the battle is won' and that things are moving in the right direction, they simply aren’t moving fast enough.

While some suggest that women have a responsibility to ‘lean in’ and make their voices heard, if they want to smash the glass ceiling, perhaps it’s not quite as simple as that.

As we so often hear, when men assert themselves they are viewed as proactive, as leaders. But when women do, they are branded with sexist labels such as ‘bossy’, ‘bitchy’ or even ‘emotional.’

Here’s what the women at today’s debate had to say on the topic:


Does a lack of confidence or a lack of opportunity hold women back?

sheryl sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg launched the 'Lean In' philosophy

Alex Depledge, co-founder of Hassle.com, says:

“I don’t believe that women need to act like men, but I do think we need to grow a thicker skin.”

“It starts at an early age – not instilling in women the scrappiness needed to get on in today’s world.”

Natalie Campbell, founder of A Very Good Company, says:

“We are waiting to be given the opportunity. We need to be taking it, we need to be demanding it.”

Sophie Walker, Leader of the Women’s Equality Party, says:

“What happens from a very early age is we don’t respect the views and behaviour of little girls. A lot of what’s being said is that women need to change and adapt, but we need to be saying much more about how, actually, men need to change.”


Would female mentors help?

female mentors

Are female mentors the answer?

Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, says:

“We need to challenge the idea of the strong female role models. This is a language I detest. We’re creating this idea that we can only validate women if they behave in this way. We’re missing the whole range of female experience in doing that.”

Lubna Qasim, lawyer, banker and former UAE government official, says:

“It starts from home. Something which I have learned is that men who’ve had strong female role models understand strong ambitious women. Whether that be their mother, their daughter, their sisters.. men who haven’t had that are clueless as how to deal with ambitious women.”

“There’s the gender issue but there’s also the age issue. I was dealing with men in their 60s and 70s and for me, they didn’t know how to speak to me.”


Do women in leadership roles hold other women back?

mean girls

Do successful women hold other women back?

Natalie Campbell, founder of A Very Good Company, says:

“The myth of the queen bee who keeps other women down has been manufactured. But in my experience, every woman I’ve met in the workplace has been more than willing to help.”

Lubna Qassim, lawyer, banker and former UAE government official, says:

“The best bosses I’ve had have been male bosses. The female bosses I had taught me one thing: not to do as they did.”

Sally Boyle, partner and HR Director at Goldman Sachs, says:

“My experience is that women have helped other women along the way.”


Are quotas the best way to level the playing field?

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The Women's Equality Party is calling for female-only quotas

Hannah McCloskey, founder of Fearless Futures, says:

“I am very much in favour of quotas, but not as a solo tool.”

“Statistically, we are over hiring for men.”

Sally Boyle, partner and HR Director at Goldman Sachs, says:

“I don’t agree with quotas. We’ve made enormous progress. We can do it through strong leadership and through sponsorship and mentorship. We don’t need quotas.”

You can watch all the 100 Women debates here.

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