Mediocre male managers are using "fake empathy" to boost their career while holding back women in the workplace, a report backed by the financial services regulator has said. 

Researchers interviewed women working in the City and found many reported a tendency for male managers to pretend to care about equality as they recognised it was now a "very valuable" professional trait.

The report, backed by several large financial institutions, concluded that women struggle if they do not consistently excel, despite "below-average men" often profiting because they can play "good politics". 

The research, carried out by Women In Banking and Finance and the London School of Economics (LSE), was supported by the Financial Conduct Authority as well as Goldman Sachs, Barclays and Citi. 

The ability for "mediocre" men working in the City to effectively navigate internal politics leads many of them to bring this ethos into their approach to management, the report said. 

It means talented women then find their ability to progress is being guarded by men who are instinctively more likely to back people who are "like them".

The report said many women they interviewed in detail had highlighted a "growing demand for empathetic managers, along with the tendency of leaders to imitate empathy". 

Leaders ‘went through motions of appearing empathetic’

It continued: "These women spoke of leaders whose talk involved caring about equality, but their ‘walk didn’t match the talk’, in addition to other examples which suggested a lack of authenticity. 

"When exposed to leaders who faked empathy, the women described moments that were akin to suffering at the hands of ‘bad politics’, echoing the necessity to distinguish truly empathetic leaders."

The tendency to go through the motions of appearing empathetic was said to be particularly damaging during the lockdown, as greater management skills are needed to oversee remote working. 

The report said: "Once women were exposed to an empathetic manager, there was a perception that their success was unencumbered by office politics, and there were adequate opportunities for progression."

Researchers also found there was a bigger reluctance to manage men out of the business compared to women – regardless of ability – because they are still viewed as "breadwinners". 

Grace Lordan, an associate professor at the LSE, said: "Having the opportunities of talented women guarded by managers that favour people ‘like them’ and play bad politics is detrimental for financial services in terms of innovation.  

"The final gender convergence will only come when financial services have managers across all levels of seniority who embrace an inclusive leadership style that ensures the voices of all talent are heard because they are certain it is better for their own objectives. 

"Until this point, we are stuck in a compliance phase where we need to continue monitoring and auditing the progress of women in the sector to ensure progress actually happens."

The report suggested a range of areas in which companies could seek to improve the obstacles to talented women in the sector, including flexible working styles and redesigning bonuses so they are "at least partially determined by the performance of their team members".

The research was based on detailed interviews with 79 women across financial services and more than 1,700 responses to a survey.