Why Are Women Not Making It to the Top?

September 18, 2017 Sarah Foster

It should be a given that elevating women to leadership positions in the workplace is beneficial to companies. For instance, gender diverse companies are more likely to financially outperform industry medians. They are also more likely to demonstrate innovative practices, particularly when they have women at the top of the organization chart. In fact, companies with at least 30 percent of women in leadership roles can boost their net profit margins by about 15 percent compared to those with no female leaders (Peterson Institute for International Economics). But this has all been known for some time. The question of the hour isn’t, “Why do we want women at the top,” but rather, “Why are women not making it to the top?”

What is Pet to Threat?

While researching the journeys of African American women in the workplace, Dr. Kecia Thomas and her colleagues found a disarming trend. They noticed a consistent pattern overlying the careers of many women – particularly women of color in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. As novice early career employees, these women were viewed as likeable and ambitious, eager to learn and grow. During this stage of their careers, they reaped the benefits of their relative incompetence – experiencing “benevolent sexism” in the form of extra attention and support from seasoned, often white male, employees. However, this career stage soon ended as the women developed competence in their profession and confidence in their ability to drive results.

With this shift in their behaviors from meek, malleable novice to confident, no-nonsense expert, came a proportionate shift in the way co-workers responded to them. In the place of attention and support came distrust and belittlement. Benevolent sexism was replaced by microaggressions and political maneuvering. The same seasoned employees who fawned over these women in the early stages of their tenure now viewed them as threats to the status quo and competition for titles that had historically been filled by white males. Although many plausible theories exist to describe this phenomenon, Dr. Thomas aptly dubbed it, “Pet to Threat.”

Why does it happen?

The Pet to Threat experience is likely an embodiment of what social psychologists call the “Stereotype Content Model.” Developed by Dr. Amy Cuddy, Dr. Susan Fiske, and Dr. Peter Glick, this model breaks all stereotypes down to two fundamental components: Warmth and Competence. Mountains of research show that men can be perceived as warm, as competent, or even as warm and competent. However, women are typically viewed as either warm or competent, allowing no room for being both.

What does that mean?

Early in their careers, as women enter the workforce, they are perceived as incompetent (to their benefit) and thus, increasing their perceived warmth. However, as they grow in their tenure, their competence increases, impeding on their ability to be perceived as warm and simultaneously decreasing their likability to male counterparts. In addition to this complex relocation in the stereotype content model, women who rise in the ranks are upheaving a status quo – meaning that those who historically benefitted from that same status quo will resist the change, whether consciously or unconsciously.

What is the impact?

As one could imagine, being perceived as a “threat” by colleagues and experiencing a hostile work environment as one increases in her tenure would likely have negative repercussions. At Aon, we recently reviewed a subset of our normative database, which contains nine million survey responses from employees around the world. What we found was staggering. Not only did we see that women’s engagement drops 5 points more than men’s in the first two years of taking a new job (about the same time as it takes to fully onboard and excel in a new role), but we also saw consistent themes underlying their engagement level, echoing the existence and negative impact of the Pet to Threat phenomenon.

Namely, women:

  • Are less likely to feel that action will be taken on issues of workplace fairness 
    62% male | 57% female
  • Are less likely to trust their bosses or organizational leadership 
    66% male | 61% female
  • Feel less challenged at work 
    71% male | 66% female
  • Feel like they have less influence in decisions than their male counterparts do 
    62% male | 57% female
  • Feel that the results that they get at work are not as connected to their pay 
    52% male | 47% female
    Read Aon's One Brief article on women and pay.

What can we do about it?


  • Understand the phenomenon and be able to detect the “turn” from Pet to Threat
  • Identify opportunities to protect other women from the same pattern of behaviors by advocating on their behalf


  • Understand the biases that impact managerial judgment (e.g., affinity bias – the natural tendency to hire and promote those who look similar to you)
  • Recognize and reward instances in which women display competence (even if in the absence of “warmth”)

Head of Talent

  • Measure engagement and pay/promotion data over the course of employees’ tenure to identify gender disparity trends
  • Equip managers to measure performance objectively and educate them on unconscious biases that may impact the performance management process


  • Vocalize the importance and business case of equity in your organization
  • Challenge senior leadership to foster a culture of gender parity


The transition from a pet to a threat is a workplace symptom that can be eliminated or, in the least, alleviated. By building awareness of the issue and taking action to foster a culture of inclusion and support, companies can build on the benefits already apparent from having women in leadership.

Learn more about gender and engagement in the workplace by downloading our white paper, The Gender Gap: Why Men and Women Experience Work Differently.

Academic Sources

Thomas, K.M., Johnson-Bailey, J., Phelps, R.E., Tran, N.M., & Johnson, L. (2013).Moving from Pet to Threat: Narratives of Professional Black Women. In L. Comas-Diaz & B. Green (Eds.).The Psychological Health of Women of Color: Intersections, Challenges, and Opportunities (pp275-286). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Cuddy, A. J. C., Fiske, S. T., and Glick, P. (2007). The BIAS Map: Behaviors from intergroup affect and stereotypes. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 92, 631–648.

Cuddy, A. J., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2008). Warmth and competence as universal dimensions of social perception: The stereotype content model and the BIAS map. Advances in experimental social psychology, 40, 61-149.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., and Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 82, 878–902.

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