Despite attending the nation’s top universities, only one quarter of female respondents said they believe they can do anything with their life, according to a survey by the Bright Network, the graduate careers consultancy.
Although the so-called gender pay gap in the UK stands at 19pc, meaning the average British woman earns a fifth less than a man, it narrowed last year to a record low of 9.4pc for people in full-time employment. Women in their twenties and thirties in full-time jobs now earn more than their male peers.
However, the study suggests that a cultural barrier remains for many women entering the job market.
Seven in 10 female respondents would not class themselves as confident – despite having attended Oxbridge, Russell Group or Times Top 20 universities and achieved AAB or higher at A Level – and a third of these women said they are anxious about being perceived as overly ambitious.
"'Bossy' at a young age or 'ball-breakers' in the work environment, girls and women who push themselves forward are still all too often given negative labels," said Rachel Spedding, director of Bright Network. "While progress has been made, the effect of these entrenched attitudes can be exacerbated by the way in which girls, throughout school and university, are advised that getting their heads down and working hard is the only prerequisite for career success."
Ms Spedding continued: "This can have a fundamental impact on women's confidence. That's why women need not just role models but a company culture that proactively encourages women to put themselves forward and helps them to map out a clear and positive path for advancement."
Studies have shown that certain words that subtly criticise aspiration, such as pushy, shrill and abrasive, are applied overwhelmingly to women in the workplace. To this end, Facebook executive and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, along with Beyonce, Victoria Beckham and a host of other women, launched the Ban Bossy campaign last year.
Royal Mail boss Moya Greene, one of the five female chief executives in the FTSE 100, said recently: “People ascribe negative qualities to women who reveal they have ambition. It’s doubly difficult to get the numbers to change if people don’t think they can do the job.”
Recently introduced legislation could help change this corporate environment. Companies with more than 250 employees will now have topublish how much they pay male and female staff, and mothers and fathers are now allowed to share 50 weeks of parental leave between them.
Bright Network has 40,000 members and has partnered with more than 250 leading employers including Google, McKinsey, Deutsche Bank, PwC, EY, Slaughter and May, Morgan Stanley, Lazard and HSBC.
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