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.
Celia de Anca
Mar 17, 2017

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, according to Dr Celia de Anca, IE professor of Global Diversity, and Director of IE’s Centre for Diversity. In conversation with the FT’s employment correspondent Sarah O’Connor, at a recent Financial Times | IE Corporate Learning Alliance event held in partnership with City Women Network, Dr de Anca discussed initial research findings of an ongoing three-year research project.

This gender tension gap (GTG) model 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 the 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. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap index ranks Iceland first, having the narrowest GTG, with Nicaragua ranked 10th, the UK 20th, and the US 45th. Rather, GTG is historically and culturally rooted, notes Dr de Anca. 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.’

Failure to recognise the tensions arising from traditional and future expectations carries consequences

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, Dr de Anca says. 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, Dr de Anca says. 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.

Action points for women in leadership positions

  • Reflect on whether the cultural assumptions that underlie your working behaviour are indeed normal, or merely reflect inherited expectations that you may or may not wish to accept. Then you are in a stronger position to decide whether to accept these tensions or how to reduce them.
  • Consider national differences. Just as women face different external barriers in different countries, we should not assume that internal barriers are the same everywhere.
  • Get digital support. The GTG’s digital tool will be able to help female executives identify unconscious biases between their traditional and emerging perceptions and guide their responses.