If you had to hire a manager, would you opt for a man or a woman? According to the statistics, your choice would be a man 79% of the time- and a woman only 21%. This is real data for 2013 in Spain. However, if Spanish businessmen were familiar with one of the most recent pieces of research on the subject done by Jack Zenger, a worldwide authority in the field of leadership development, they might have second thoughts. According to Zenger, women have an average effectiveness rating of 53% as leaders, compared to 49% for men. If you drill down into the data, you find that of the 16 different skills that are evaluated, women achieve better results in all but one- strategic perspective. This data is drawn from a survey carried out with 7,280 leaders from around the world, most of whom were men (64%).

Differences in leadership skills (Effectiveness Index):

  Men Women
 Takes initiative 48 56
 Practises Self-Development 48 55
 Displays High Integrity and Honesty 48 55
 Drives for Results 48 54
 Develops Others 48 54
 Inspires and Motivates Others 49 54
 Builds Relationships 49 54
 Collaboration and Teamwork 49 53
 Sets Ambitious Goals 49 53
 Champions Change 49 53
 Solves Problems and Analyses Issues 50 52
 Communicates Powerfully and Prolifically 50 52
 Connects the Group to the Outside World 50 51
 Innovates 50 51
 Technical or Professional Expertise 50 51
 Develops Strategic Perspective 51 49

Source: Jack Zenger (2012)

In theory, women in Spanish companies are not discriminated against. However, based on the survey mentioned at the beginning of this post, only 21% of senior managers and 32% of middle managers in Spain are women. (Compared to 2012, the percentage of women in positions of senior management in Spanish companies with more than 100 employees has actually gone down- from 24% to 21%). How can this apparent contradiction be explained? What is the root of the problem? Something’s definitely amiss here…

First of all, it’s not easy to be a mother and to hold down a job that requires being at the office for more than eight hours a day. Furthermore, few would deny the existence of so-called ‘glass ceilings’ in many organisations which make it difficult for certain groups of people to progress. Even after taking these two factors into account, however, we’re still missing something.

There are, in fact, other much more subtle factors at play. After working for years in talent development, I have identified three reasons, above and beyond those already described, that help to explain why women encounter greater obstacles in their quest for professional advancement. These obstacles are directly related to their personal characteristics and their fears. Without further ado, here they are…

Women don’t sell themselves, and their achievements, well. In the talent development programmes that I run, I’ve detected a widespread belief among many women: in order to get promoted, being good at your job is all that you need. However, I’m sorry to say that this is not the case, especially in large companies. As well as doing your job well, you have to make sure that others are aware of the fact. As women, we are swayed by the deeply-rooted belief that we should “behave like good girls” and follow the accepted patterns of conduct, while we leave it up to others to extol “our virtues”. (This is obviously a generalisation, but in my opinion it’s a fairly common way of thinking.) What underlies this mindset is the fear of rejection, which often morphs into the fear of looking silly. And as we’ve seen in a previous post, we pay a high price for this.

Women aren’t good at networking. It’s basically up to us if we want to have a high profile in a company. We need to get across to others what we are contributing and, in order to do this, we must have established a good range of contacts who are willing to listen to us. The fact is that, if you want to get on in a company, building up a network of contacts both inside and outside the office should be part of your day-to-day activity. 

Women find it difficult to be assertive and to defend their own interests. Being assertive and expressing their own needs doesn’t come easily to many women. Worse still, when they try to do this, it is often frowned upon. A paper about gender differences, published at the University of Harvard, is enlightening in this respect, and it had a big impact on me. When one of the authors asked her college dean why it was always men who taught doctorate-level courses while female staff attended as mere bystanders, his reply couldn’t have been clearer: because the men asked to teach on the courses whereas the women didn’t. This answer led to an interesting piece of research into women’s assertiveness and its consequences.
A group of men and women were shown a video in which a series of job applicants (of both sexes) tried to negotiate their starting salary. The viewers were asked to choose the applicant who they liked the most and, consequently, would have hired if it had been up to them. (In point of fact, the ‘applicants’ in the videos were in reality actors who were each told to behave in a particular way.) After seeing the video, both the male and female viewers thought highly of the men who were aggressive negotiators because they knew what they wanted. However, both male and female viewers had a low opinion of the women who had displayed exactly the same negotiating style because they were deemed to be “less nice”! These finding are, frankly, alarming.

So it seems that, aside from lack of opportunities, women find it difficult to openly express their needs. Worse still, there is widespread prejudice against women who stand up for what they want.

In conclusion, if we want to give women a greater chance to progress, both boards of directors and women themselves need to get their act together and to face up to their responsibilities. Companies’ have to improve their internal policies and women must develop the right skills to smooth the path to promotion. The data clearly shows that we women can be very effective leaders, but we need to make sure that our work is recognised, properly manage our network of contacts, be more assertive in the defence of our own interests and, of course, not think badly of those women who already know how to do this.
All companies need diversity if they are to function well. However, as of today, this vital element is missing at the middle and senior levels in companies. We can blame this state of affairs on history or on the prevailing culture if we like, but the fact remains that there is still much to be done in this area, and the process necessarily begins with each one of us.


If you want to progress in any organisation, it’s not enough just to do your job well. Apart from this, you need to:

  • Make sure that others value what you are doing. This means that you need to grasp all the opportunities at your disposal to talk about what you’ve done, your achievements… not in a boastful way, but with self-confidence and driven by a sense of personal satisfaction.
  • Devote time to managing your network of contacts. See to it that decision-makers know about you. Plan regular lunch dates with key people and attend events and meetings where you may rub shoulders with people who exert influence. Taking care of your network of contacts is a job in itself.
  • Don’t be afraid to openly voice your interests and needs. Be assertive and, if you aspire to a certain position, don’t wait for someone else to think of you. Just say what you want, with clarity. If someone at work is better than you at getting themselves noticed, learn from them- don’t judge them.


Women can be very effective leaders. However, if we want to advance professionally, we need to: make others aware of what we’re contributing; properly manage our network of contacts; be more assertive in the defence of our own interests; and, of course, not be critical of other women who able to do all of this already.

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