Fed Up Of Never Being Top Dog?

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Stylist Team
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Women are stuck in middle management roles, with 81% saying a lack of opportunities is holding them back. Stylist discovers why there are so few top jobs out there, and names the growth industries to target

Words: Becky Howard, Photos: Rex Features

It’s a familiar feeling for most of us. We work with drive and commitment, day in, day out, and yet the top job – CEO, CFO, MD, prime minister – eludes us. Because while we’ve worked hard, struggled through late nights and ridiculously early mornings, rescued numerous reports and rewritten countless presentations, and rightly progressed quickly through our 20s, our careers have unmistakably shuddered to a halt. In 21st-century Britain, ambitious and clever women are still failing to squeeze themselves into the top jobs and hovering just below the title of Queen Bee despite our rosy prospects – and the statistics prove it. Our Stylist census, where 10,000 of you told us about your lives, showed that while 62% of you have a degree and a massive 25% have masters or doctorates, only 25.5% are managers.

This phenomenon is borne out by further stark, depressing facts. In 2011, the number of female board members in FTSE 100 companies was only 12.5% despite research showing that companies with female directors do better than those with wholly male executive teams. Additionally, the recently published Sex And Power 2013: Who Runs Britain? report published by the ‘Counting Women In’ coalition found women were missing from top roles in politics and public life. Looking at many different fields like health, the judiciary and the media, they found that despite women making up 51% of the population, power is concentrated in the hands of the minority because “Britain is a country run largely by men.” And if you think that sounds like a generalisation, there are plenty of figures to back it up; just 22.5% of MPs, 5% of national newspaper editors and 15% of Police and Crime Commissioners are women. As a result, Britain is slipping down the global league tables when it comes to having women in influential positions according to a report by independent advisory firm Grant Thornton – it currently stands at 19 out of 25 countries behind countries as diverse as Norway, Thailand, Canada and Italy.

But it’s not just gender politics. Compare our generation to that of our parents; we all have degrees, we all have expectations of rising to the top. It’s a simple fact of numbers – there are too many men and women after a limited number of senior roles. The labour market is stagnant; full of bright, qualified, eager workers with nowhere to go. It’s a problem that hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Everywoman survey found 81% of female middle managers feel lack of progression is a problem. Frustration is rife and it’s clear why: women are more educated than ever, we’ve been told we can ‘do anything’, yet plum positions remain out of our grasp. This is something that Maria, 34, a lawyer from London can relate to. She’s been in her current role for six years. “The ‘top table’ at work consists of the same half-dozen people who were there when I arrived. I like my work, and I’m doing a good job but I feel constantly frustrated that this is as far as I’m going to go.” This stagnation is affecting women across all industries. It’s not a ‘glass ceiling’; more a case of ‘career congestion’ where multiple barriers shut us out from the top jobs.

Risk aversion

We’re still in the longest recession since records began and the UK economy shrank a further 0.3% in the last few months of 2012. Figures show that people in employment are less willing to risk taking on a new role – with the number of people leaving jobs falling by 42% in 2011 – causing the labour market to be its least dynamic in 13 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. Employees who would have, five years ago, happily jumped from job to job are guarding their positions thanks to the waves of redundancy and unemployment tearing through the UK. Without the senior jobs being freed up, companies have top-heavy structures and nominal staff turnover, according to a report from PriceWaterhouseCooper. “There is less movement,” confirms Laura Whyte, personnel manager of John Lewis. “The John Lewis employee turnover was 6% higher in 2008 than now. People are more risk-averse.” Plus, in financially troubled times, companies are too scared to take a chance on young talent (particularly women who may need maternity leave) – there’s pressure from investors to employ a ‘safe pair of hands’ when a top job becomes available, meaning they go for experience rather than potential.

There’s no doubt having children can have a huge impact on your career progression. On one end of the scale, many women wait until they reach a senior position to start a family. And then begins a decadelong pattern where female executives doggedly hang on their hard-fought for positions while slotting in periods of maternity leave. On the other hand, motherhood can be a key barrier for women reaching the top. A report by Ernst & Young found that 44% of women surveyed said maternity leave had impacted their career, and 32% said more support after returning to work after children would help with career progression. McKinsey’s Women Matter report into women’s underrepresentation in the boardroom also concluded that taking time out for maternity leave can adversely affect careers while a survey this month showed one in seven women lost their job while on maternity leave and 40% said their jobs had changed by the time they returned.

“It’s the phenomenon of pipeline leakage where women leave or stagnate after having children,” says Dr Ines Wichert, senior psychologist in Women in Research for the Kenexa Institute and author of Where Have All The Senior Women Gone? Much of it is down to societal attitudes, as women are regarded as carers and if an organisation has no women in senior management, the decisionmakers (men) fail to help the women progress by trusting them with the top jobs. “It’s easier for women these days to be both mothers and workers but they pay a huge price for it,” explains Dr Ines. “We need to see women in high-visibility roles when they return from maternity leave.” Instead, at the moment, most working mums find themselves sidelined into positions with no progression in sight.

Crisis of confidence

Confidence is also an issue: women just don’t promote themselves. This is partly due to how women are taught to behave from childhood. Remember how you were taught to not ‘show off’ about winning? When all the boys at school jostled for attention but the girls waited their turn? This holds us back while a more ‘male’ approach is rewarded. How many times have you completed a task diligently but quietly while a male colleague ensures your boss knows he’s exceeded his targets?

Jo Tanner, who runs her own PR firm and has now launched HerSay, a media resource for female experts agrees. “Women don’t promote themselves enough,” she says. “Men convince you they can do anything, whereas women will say they can’t.” It’s no surprise, then, that many women are demotivated in their careers. The SHL Talent Report into women in leadership positions, found that women’s representation drops off significantly as responsibility and titles increase – with 48% of junior levels being held by women, falling to just 26% of senior-level jobs. “With three men to every one women in leadership positions, UK boardrooms are self-perpetuating an unbalanced culture which is likely to disengage women from aspiring to reach a senior position,” explains Eugene Burke of talent measurement research company SHL.

Role models

Another barrier that holds women back is the lack of role models within their own industry. “Our research revealed that women felt they lacked suitable career training, role models and mentoring opportunities,” explains Sharon Glancey, founder of Women 1st, the training and mentoring programme for the UK’s hospitality and travel industries. Similarly, an Ernst & Young poll found that 75% of women had few or no female role models at their organisation. “One of the most fundamental aspects of managing barriers is role models – for people to actively demonstrate that barriers can be overcome,” adds Liz Bingham, managing partner for people in the UK and Ireland at Ernst & Young. “Women leave many professions because they can’t see anyone ahead of them that they identify with, so they get the message that this isn’t for them,” explains Dr Averil Leimon, author of Coaching Women To Lead.

And yet, until the feminist movement encouraged women into following their career dreams, all businesses were designed for and run by men. These old-fashioned models of management still hold today. “Lack of diversity is normal, so many companies are used to recruiting the same – pale, male and stale,” says Dr Leimon. Unconscious bias means male decision-makers appoint the top jobs to those they feel comfortable with. “In recruitment, there’s a tendency to recruit in your own image,” explains Laura Whyte from John Lewis, where the board is made up of 44% women. “Employers need to challenge themselves with the shape they recruit in.”

New directions

Of course, many companies are working hard to redress the balance and appoint women to senior positions. Organisations like the 30 Per Cent Club – founded to encourage FTSE 100 boards to become 30% female – are moving in the right direction. Meanwhile, new legislation on flexible parental leave from 2015 could eventually facilitate improved career prospects.

But if you’re not inclined to wait, if you’re pretty convinced your boss isn’t going to clear the decks soon, and are feeling stifled in an industry with just far too many people jostling for the senior roles, it might be time to reevaluate whether you’re in the right job. Because there are lots of nascent industries (often led by women) that are willing to take a chance on new talent and will be teeming with money and opportunity over the next few years – so we’ve highlighted six areas, all of which offer genuine opportunities to reach the top. Turn over to see the best industries to become top dog.

These Industries Need You!

Sharpen your transferable skills and power your way to the top jobs in these new growth areas


Ignore the negativity from certain political parties; Britain is internationally committed to generating 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. It currently stands at around 11.7% and every percentage point rise marks a huge investment – the renewable energy job market has grown 250% in just six years. As the most blustery country in Europe our strength lies in wind, and 80% of people working in the British wind industry have switched from other areas. Engineers who can retrain from other industries are in massive demand, although “the industry needs business experts as well as project managers and technicians,” says Robert Norris of RenewableUK. “We already employ hundreds of accountants, lawyers and communications professionals.” Renewable Training Network has been set up to manage the skills shortage in the industry which can be plugged by professionals from other sectors. A series of Work Wind Ready courses are currently being developed to help prepare 12,000 people to get into the industry by 2016. Sustainable design and architecture is also booming – the government requires all new homes to be carbon neutral from 2016 – so there are plenty of opportunities to go green if you work in property. And if you’re trained in graphic design, take note: sustainable packaging is estimated to grow by 14% through 2014.

Artisan economy

While success stories like Innocent drinks and the proliferation of farmers’ markets bear witness to a healthy artisan food economy, handmade crafts – as diverse as jewellery to ceramics to textiles – are also contributing to the sector. In 2011, they boosted the economy by £457m – dwarfing digital music downloads (up to £383m last year). If you’re already working in the creative industries, you will be better poised to make the sidestep here; an eye for what’s on trend and knowledge of marketing, PR and web design will help greatly. Otherwise, it depends if you have a hidden creative talent that you’ve been playing down for the last 10 years – or if have an incredible concept for which you’re happy to be the business brains. Encouragingly, it’s an economy based on initiative; most of those involved in the craft business in Britain work independently and 69% are women. The trick is to start small to see if your creations resonate with the public. Many artisan producers sell their wares through Etsy, the biggest online marketplace (200% increase in sales in the last five years), and if food production is your thing, specialist course providers such as Nottinghamshire’s School of Artisan Food ( promise to equip you with the skills you need to succeed in kitchen table entrepreneurism.


Visitors to the UK for the 2012 Olympics helped lift the British economy out of recession (if only for a fiscal quarter) last year, and with other major sporting events coming up, it’s estimated more than 660,000 additional people will be needed to work in tourism and hospitality by 2020. And if you’re willing to strike-out on your own, now could be the perfect time to invest in a lettings business (or related enterprise) in a tourism hotspot. Our tip is Glasgow: hotel occupancy figures hit a five-year high in November 2012 with (81% of rooms booked) and the city is expecting a sustained boom in visitor numbers from hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games. “You have to really like people,” explains Angela Foster who left teaching to run self-catering cottages ( “The ability to deal with all sections of the community is key. And don’t expect a uniform working week – you’re on duty when everyone else is on holiday.” Leadership, basic accounting, business management and customer-facing skills are vital if you’re thinking of making the jump. The first step is to get in touch with your regional tourist board. They tend to be member organisations so are staffed by people who own the local B&Bs and coffee shops and can offer advice on how to set up. Tourist boards will also host networking and training events, such as how to market your business through Twitter.


The digital economy in Britain isn’t just here to stay: it’s here to conquer. Currently bigger than the healthcare, construction or education sectors, the UK also sells far more online than any other major economy – from 13.5% of all purchases in 2010 to a projected 23% by 2016. The tech workforce (17% of which is currently female) is expected to grow by 113,000 by 2015. To have a good footing in the industry (and allow you to glide up the ladder seamlessly) you should learn to code. Programming drives everything from games to websites to apps, and although it might seem daunting, an aptitude for something as rudimentary as those old ‘logic problems’ magazines may suggest that you can thrive. Belinda Parmar, CEO of Lady Geek, who works to make technology more accessible to women, agrees: “Coding has also become fashionable as well as being fundamental to the digital economy.” There are many different types of code, but to create a decent website, you need to know your way around three basic codes. “Very simply, HTML and CSS are behind the structure and design of a website and probably take two weeks to learn together,” explains Tom Wheatley, Shortlist Media’s head of email. “JavaScript covers the interaction and shapes the user experience. That takes around a month to grasp.” Get the basics from initiatives such as and

Foreign markets

More and more businesses are capitalising on rapidly growing economies abroad. As well as the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), Australia and Canada are also booming. Jobs on the rise tend to be in the professional services such as accountancy, law, business consultancy, and for those with wanderlust, international trade can mean a chance to travel. “To work in any emerging market the individual needs to have a flexible style, high emotional intelligence, and a good awareness of cultural issues,” says Bridget Walsh, partner and head of UK & Ireland China Trade Route for Ernst & Young. She also believes the international angle helps women do just as well as men: “I have seen lots of examples of very senior women in the Chinese organisations progressing through the ranks because Chinese culture is merit based – your gender is irrelevant.” Fluency in another language is crucial here so enrol in Portuguese, Russian or Mandarin classes if you’re serious about changing industry. Plus, in-depth knowledge of your adopted market is another key to success. “Ask your company for an office exchange with another country, and use guangxi – the art of network building – to find mentors and connections in the industry,” says Emma Sherrard Matthew, CEO of luxury travel brand, Quintessentially Lifestyle.