Leadership: Why do women work while men triumph?

Sep 07, 2022

6 mins

Leadership: Why do women work while men triumph?
Barbara Azais

Journaliste freelance

Thomas Decamps

Photographe chez Welcome to the Jungle

Here’s a startling statistic: Men hold 90% of the world’s leadership positions. It’s obvious that many women are more competent and ambitious than their male counterparts at the beginning of their careers, so why do fewer of them reach management or leadership positions? Is it even possible to take significant action against inequality in the workplace if we ignore the invisible codes and unconscious biases that benefit men at the expense of women? To begin to answer these questions, we spoke to author Gill Whitty-Collins about her book Why Men Win at Work. Whitty-Collins exposes a male-dominated workplace culture that not only undermine women’s career development but also to the prosperity of companies.

Your book is titled Why Men Win at Work, is this statement difficult for men to hear?

It’s a bit controversial, it’s true, but I wanted to say something important. It’s not that men don’t work; we know they work and sometimes they work very hard. My point here is that women work but don’t win or triumph – and that is the difference. Many women work hard and they do so until they just can’t anymore. They reach their limits and are still unable to attain positions of leadership. Because of this, they’re frustrated when they see their male colleagues succeed and move up the ladder by working as hard as they do (sometimes less so), and this is what we need to understand.

You write that “men take their behavior and identity for granted, without realizing that women have a different experience in the same context.” To what extent is the world of work dominated by male culture?

Hands down, men outnumber women in leadership positions in professional fields. Grant Thornton data from 2016 shows that women hold 24% of leadership positions in the United States and only 10.5% of fund managers are women. In 2019, just 3% of global venture capital funding went to start-ups founded by women. Globally, women hold less than 10% of management positions, and only 7% of companies are led by women. In the US, just 9% of states are headed by women. Whether in business, sports, entertainment, politics, or the media, men monopolize leadership roles. Men are rewarded more often and they’re the ones in the limelight, not the women. As a result, if and when women enter these environments, they find themselves immersed in a powerful male culture.

You talk about “invisible codes and unconscious biases in companies that benefit men at the expense of women.” Are women aware that they’re victims of this inequality you describe?

Some women aren’t aware of the inequality, especially when they’re young. On top of this, some even deny the problem of gender diversity. When you’re a woman in a dominant male culture, you immediately sense that you’re not fully included or accepted. You feel the “invisible forces” in the company culture, even if you don’t understand them. I didn’t understand these forces until I secured a management position. As I participated in meetings I began to realize I wasn’t in an egalitarian environment. The company was 80% male. I recognized the impact this had on my female colleagues and I saw them behave differently. They were reserved and talked less. The men were kind and respectful to the women, but when a man spoke, everyone listened carefully. However, when a woman spoke, the men listened differently. They didn’t wait for her to finish and they interrupted her. Scenarios were played out and discussions were concluded when a man spoke, but not when a woman did because men unconsciously give more respect to one another.


According to statistics, women often earn better grades in school and they’re good managers when they reach management positions, so why are they still perceived as less competent?

When it comes to competence and intelligence, women and men are equal. Half of the university students in the world are women and that number is slightly higher in Europe at 55%. Research shows that women perform at least as well as men in leadership, and Fortune 500 companies led by women perform better. There’s simply a gap between skills and confidence. All of us have a picture of the ideal leader in our minds, which often comes from the way a person speaks (with confidence, charisma, and expressive body language). Generally we listen to and admire the person who shows the most confidence and the one who’s the first to speak up and launch into a long spiel rather than just giving a quick remark, but this has nothing to do with real leadership ability. Many studies confirm that men are more confident in the dominant male culture that exists in the workplace. They naturally feel more comfortable in this culture than women do, of course, and can therefore be more successful.

How is dominant male culture detrimental to the success of a business?

Men occupy 90% of the world’s leadership roles, yet women represent 50% of the world’s intelligence. If companies don’t take advantage of this, they’re missing half of the available talent. Many studies confirm the positive influence of mixed teams on a company’s success. McKinsey, for example, has shown that closing the gender gap in the workplace would lead to $2.1 billion of growth in the United States (+1% GDP growth per year). Companies that respect gender diversity claim to generate 21% more in profits. The presence of women in business is essential because women bring ideas and knowledge that men may not. When an organization integrates more women, its collective intelligence increases and the collaborative thought process expands. A team with a balance of women and men is superior to an all-male team. As Emmanuelle Quiles, chief executive of Janssen France, says, “When we exclude a population, we inhibit our capacity to create value.” All companies should seek diversity of thought and work to close the gender gap.

How does the meritocracy myth put the career development of women at a disadvantage?

In my career, every woman I’ve met has believed in the meritocracy myth. Women think that if they do a good job, if they meet or exceed their objectives, then the rest will follow. However, when I talk to men about meritocracy, they laugh. They’re usually savvier than women on the subject because they know they’re not being watched carefully all the time. What they’ve realized is that self-promotion and image management are just as important to their success as their actual work! That’s why I explain the “umbrella theory” to women. It’s imagining ourselves working under an umbrella with our superiors above us who only see the top part of our umbrella. We understand that in order for our work to be valued and appreciated, we need to invite our managers and directors to come under the umbrella to actually see what we do. We need more than good work on our side, we must work for all to see and we ourselves need to be visible as well.


Why does networking, or “relational currency” as you describe it, benefit men more than women?

Networking benefits everyone, but men have a better understanding that connecting with their superiors is essential. Because we’re human, we naturally turn to the people we know. If we’re recruiting, hiring, or doing business in general, we’re going to contact people we already know! However, many women find networking unbearable although there are exceptions. Women tend to focus on productivity and fail to fully develop their relational currency. Networking done well is an invisible force that’s vital to receiving sponsorship or support for a leadership position. Again, working hard isn’t enough, women need to be known and have the backing that comes from networking.

You claim that 7% of companies are led by women. Who are these rare women and how do they triumph at work?

These are women who’ve become aware of the invisible codes and unconscious biases that favor men in the workplace. These women know they’re capable, they have confidence in themselves and in their work, and they have absolutely no doubt that they’re competent. If their work is not seen or appreciated, they’re positive that the problem is the culture of the company, not their talent, and they’re able to leave their jobs if that’s what they choose. In addition, I’ve never seen any of these women take on the responsibility of all the household chores. Either they’re not married, they’ve chosen not to have children, or they have a partner who has stopped working to take care of the kids, or they’ve hired people to help. This is important to mention because we know that women traditionally do more in the home than men, but they have to understand that it’s not possible to accommodate everyone and everything. Not all women want to be managers, but if they do, they shouldn’t think that they can also “work” at home at the same time. In any case, I’ve never seen a manager do both.

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every day!

Topics discussed