LSE study reveals diverse career journeys of female leaders

Our study showed just how common 'the unplanned journey' is among female leaders
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Julia Gillard Creative Commons

A unique LSE project revealing how some of the world’s leading women in public life attained professional success through diverse and unplanned career paths is being launched in the House of Commons today (Wednesday 26 April).

The Above the Parapet study, undertaken by the London School of Economics and Political Science, draws on personal interviews with 85 women, including former heads of state, government ministers, ambassadors, professors and civil society leaders.

Led by LSE’s Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), the study featured interviews with many women who were ‘firsts’ in their field – in politics, law and academia.

These included Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, the first female presidents of Malawi and Kyrgyzstan, Joyce Banda and Roza Otunbayeva respectively, and the first African American woman to head an Ivy League university, Ruth Simmons.

Lead researcher Dr Purna Sen, former Deputy Director of the IPA, said the study showed just how common “the unplanned journey” is among female leaders, many of whom reach senior positions in public life without a set game plan.

“This should be immensely encouraging to young women who are unsure of their career trajectory,” Dr Sen said.

The interviewees spoke about the challenges of juggling professional and personal responsibilities, the sexism they encountered along the way and the importance of strong and supportive female networks, spouses and partners.

“Gender, class, race, age, disability and geography intersected in many journeys, along with a large portion of what women referred to as luck. A total of 57 per cent of interviewees said that being in the right place at the right time played a role in elevating their careers.”

Merit, qualifications and experience were often not enough to reach the top of their fields, the study revealed.

Professor Conor Gearty, former Director of LSE’s IPA, said: “We know that women are underrepresented in senior levels of public life, yet what remains little explored is women’s own accounts of their journeys. Not only does this study shine a light on their experiences, barriers and lessons, but it is notable for capturing experiences of women who tend to be poorly seen and heard.”

The global launch of the Above the Parapet study took place in March at the United Nations, where Dr Sen is now Director of Policy at UN Women. The research was supported by the Alison Wetherfield Foundation and the LSE Annual Fund.

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Behind the article

Notes to editors

For a full copy of the report, contact Paul Sullivan from the IPA or Candy Gibson, Senior Press Officer, LSE.

Statistics from the report

  • Women make up less than 10 per cent of world leaders and globally, less than 23 per cent of parliamentarians.
  • No country in the world pays women the same as men; very few have equal representation in managerial positions; and men’s share of household duties remains low and inconsistent compared to women.
  • Interviewees included the first black, Muslim and Jewish women in parliament/cabinet in their respective countries; the first openly lesbian political party leader in her country; and the first female vice-chancellor of a university in her country, among others.