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Self-censorship, gender stereotypes, social burden, etc., Hédia Zannad, professor at NEOMA, offers us new considerations on the reasons that can push women to choose careers that are less ambitious than men’s careers.

Glass ceiling or…?

When Rémy Pflimlin, former president of France Télévisions, proposed that Maryse Burgot become his deputy director, she declined his offer. “You can clearly see that there is no glass ceiling,” was how he responded! So, who is to blame if women do not have as rewarding careers as men?

Are many different factors such as gender discrimination, lack of work-life balance policies or a lack of successful female role models linked to the famous glass ceiling?

Is there a lack of real or supposed motivation among women to seek out power?

Or is it well-known self-censorship, meaning the internalisation of stereotypes that lead women to question their skills and effectiveness?

Asked about the reasons for her refusal, the brilliant journalist responded that she felt she had to take care of her adolescent children for whom she had already “sacrificed” a lot in the past by pursuing a career outside of mainland France. To which she added, “My husband, who also works for France Télévisions, did not understand my decision because, in the same conditions, he would have accepted the offer to become No. 2 of the group.”

So, is it really Maryse Burgot’s fault, and more generally that of women, if there are professional inequalities? Or is it the fault of cultural gender norms that have become so internalised that, possessing the same skills and proposed the exact same offers, a man and a woman rarely make choices that have the same level of ambition?

What is professional self-censorship?

Texts discussing the concept of professional self-censorship among women describe it as a complicated and insidious process, which starts early at school, producing effects many years later on decisions relating to their direction – men become engineers and women become magistrates – then on their professional and career choices (positions of responsibility are concentrated in the hands of men).

But what are we talking about exactly when we talk about professional self-censorship, and more importantly, what are its consequences?

By relying on the sciences of management, economics, sociology and social psychology, Borel and Soparnot (2020)1 sought to understand it as a bicomponent reality: self-limitation and the influence of authority. This distinction is important because it helps deconstruct the supposed fault of women confronted by the inequalities that they are subject to, while reinforcing the need to fight against gender-based stereotypes.

Self-limitation refers to the fact that women underestimate their abilities, particularly when it comes to leadership. This biased assessment is connected with their lack of availability, which is often a real constraint for them, due to the two levels of domestic and parental duties that they are responsible for. The stereotypes set out by society (among men, ambition goes hand in hand with strength and courage, for women it reflects selfishness and careerism) and the feeling of guilt that they create can explain these types of self-limiting behaviours in the way women manage their careers.

But self-censorship is also the result of a second factor: an authority figure that exercises a form of power both real and imaginary (a teacher, a parent, public opinion, the social sphere) that, by “putting images in the heads” of women (Lippmann, 1922)2 can counter their aspirations. Their low self-esteem compared to that of men, often seen as the starting point for their low ambitions, is the consequence of these internalised images. Fearing competition, women tend to apply less for upper-management positions (Bosquet et al., 2014).

In the end, the foundation for the challenges of employment access, horizontal segregation and the glass ceiling clearly should be sought out in women’s self-discriminating behaviour (it’s indeed the case with Maryse Burgot who refused a highly prestigious position), but that does not mean that it is their fault. Accordingly, only assertive policies that fight against stereotypes and provide paternal leave for men could help break down the psychological barriers of one side and the mentalities of another to halt and reverse these professional inequalities.


1Borel, Pascale, Richard Soparnot. “De l’autocensure professionnelle ou quand les femmes sont prétendues responsables des inégalités qu’elles subissent”, RIMHE: Revue Interdisciplinaire Management, Homme & Entreprise, vol. 40,9, no. 3, 2020, pp. 68-78.

2Lippmann W. (1922), Public Opinion, 2nd edition, New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers.