The Gender Tension Gap: addressing motivational barriers

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The Gender Tension Gap: addressing motivational barriers

Women at work must identify and address inherited motivational barriers that prevent them from realising their true leadership potential, argues Dr Celia de Anca.

One might wonder why the UK’s 20% gender pay gap among senior executives has not narrowed after two decades. While ‘external’ barriers, such as the lack of childcare support, social pressures and restrictive laws explain much of the difference, there is also a wide range of ‘internal’ barriers such as lack of self-confidence, passive expectations of pay and promotion, and guilt over time spent away from children to consider.

These deeply embedded motivational barriers, many of which have been passed down for generations, are at odds with the modern aspirations of women. The resulting internal tensions they create prevent women from realising their true leadership potential.

This can be better understood as part of a gender tension gap (GTG) model, which measures five dimensions of professional women’s lives: success, career journey, leadership, competencies, and reputation and identity. Three key observations emerge:

– that the gap between traditional and emerging gender expectations may be easy to identify but

– tensions created between present and aspirational gender expectations are not easily recognised; and

– that there is a wide diversity of those aspirational models.

The GTG is not correlated with economic development, but historically and culturally rooted. The early division of gender roles dates back to the agricultural revolution and evolved into enlightenment concepts of citizenship based around a male centred household. These norms were only seriously challenged in the 20th century. ‘How unpleasant it is to be locked out’ reflected writer Virginia Woolf on male-dominated institutions, before adding that ‘it is worse perhaps to be locked in.’

The failure to recognise the tensions arising from these incongruous traditional and future expectations have always carried consequences—whether it’s the disappearance of women in music after composition became more ‘mathematical’ (or masculine) in the 18th century, or more recently the loss of women in the video games industry. But how does this happen?

Consider, for example, the female response to work-place stress such as having a difficult boss. Most men would soldier on or seek another job. But many women seriously consider leaving work altogether to focus on home life. This is not to suggest that men (especially those from poorer or minority backgrounds) do not struggle with inherited cultural norms of their own, particularly to be the family breadwinner. Yet when it comes to career, they tend to retain a ‘linear’ perception of success (e.g. to be manager by age 30, director at 40 etc.) while women tend to be linear in their view of domestic success (i.e. first child by 30, family complete by 36 etc.). The question is whether this attitude represents an authentic choice or a cultural holdover?

Equality through authenticity

Women’s career challenge therefore lies in Kafka’s reference to ‘living in the present’ which requires women come to terms with the past while simultaneously preparing to fight for the future. Women may have inherited a normative model from their parents and grandparents. But in challenging these expectations they can establish a multiplicity of future models, including those that place individuality above gender. Moreover, typical internal barriers may change over time as women adopt less conventional family lifestyles or perhaps choose not to have children. It may even be that rebellious daughters reject their mothers’ quest for workplace equality, and decide to work part time or be stay-at-home mothers.

The path to equality may not run smooth. But determining authentic motivations (in men as well as women) through the gender tension gap model will help women better define what they are struggling against.

Celia De Anca is Professor of Global Diversity at Spain’s IE Business School. A version of this article first appeared in Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance.


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