By Max Clarke

Almost three-quarters of women (73%) believe the glass ceiling exists and say there are still barriers for women looking to be appointed to senior management and board level positions in the UK, according to research by the Institute of Leadership & Management released today. In contrast, just 38% of men believe there is a glass ceiling.

Nearly 3,000 managers were surveyed for the report, Ambition and Gender at Work, which reveals that over a third of women (36%) feel that their gender has hindered their career progression. This figure rises to almost half (44%) among those women over the age of 45.

With Lord Davies’ review on gender equality in Britain's boardrooms due this week, the research asked whether quotas hold the answer to increasing the number of women in senior roles. While just under half of women (47%) support the idea of quotas, only 24% of men do. Notably, while women over 45 are most in favour of quotas, with almost two-thirds supporting them, men in the same age group are most against.

However, a clear majority of female managers are in favour of a more subtle approach to gender equality in the boardroom and senior management. Almost two thirds (62%) agreed that ‘positive action’ should be undertaken to increase the number of women in senior positions, compared with 42% of men.

Responding to the findings of the report Penny de Valk, Chief Executive of the Institute of Leadership & Management, says: “The research reveals a real split in opinion on how best to deal with the glacial progress the UK is making towards gender equality. Quotas may be seen as the quickest solution and some countries, notably Norway, have introduced them with some success. However, although they drive compliance, they do not necessarily drive a commitment to the more fundamental changes that are required.

“The imposition of boardroom quotas in the UK would be an admission of failure for leaders. If early predictions about the Lord Davies review are correct, UK plc has two years to increase the number of women on their boards. Rather than waiting for external legislation, now is the time for employers to set voluntary targets for female representation at board and senior management level, and hold people accountable for meeting them. Business leaders must take responsibility for building an effective talent pipeline, and make it a commercial priority to proactively identify, develop and promote potential leaders of both sexes.”

Career Aspirations of Men and Women:

The research sheds fresh light on the reasons behind the lack of women in senior management, revealing that women’s lower confidence and career ambitions can combine to impede their progress into top roles. Only half of women managers described themselves as having ‘high’ or ‘quite high’ levels of confidence, compared to 70% of men. Similarly, just half of women surveyed had expected to become managers when they embarked on their career, compared to almost two-thirds of men. Even among young managers, these gender differences are entrenched, with 45% of men under 30 expecting to become managers or leaders, compared to just 30% of women.

The research also reveals that:

• At every stage the career ambitions of women were found to lag behind those of their male counterparts

• Fewer women than men have ambitions to reach middle management, department head, general management or director level

• Women are more likely than men to aspire to run their own businesses, and younger women are the most entrepreneurially ambitious, with a quarter of women under 30 planning to start their own business within 10 years

De Valk continues: “Our research reveals that women managers tend to lack self-belief and confidence at work compared to their male counterparts. Women feel a greater sense of risk around promotion, which leads to a more cautious approach to career opportunities. And yet we also found that younger women in particular are more likely to aspire to run their own business — they are not adjusting their expectations to the same degree when it comes to the risk of starting their own ventures.

“Employers who are serious about increasing gender diversity at the top need to recognise and respond to these differences, and find ways to nurture women’s ambition. This means developing transparent talent management systems and introducing leadership career models and development approaches that flex to meet individuals’ differing needs. Coaching and mentoring, in particular, have an invaluable role to play here.

“We know that gender diversity drives organisations’ financial performance. Business leaders should need no encouragement to realise this competitive advantage by ensuring their most talented employees move into leadership roles, regardless of their gender.”