As we examine the reasons that women are under-represented in top leadership positions, the first place we will look is at our society and how our perceptions and beliefs shape the opportunities that women are given—or not given—in the workplace.
Stereotypes about Women as Leaders
A Catalyst study found that women and men have the same ambition to reach higher levels of leadership, but women face additional barriers. One of the biggest barriers is stereotyping, which misrepresents the true talents and skills of women leaders, undermining their chances for career advancement. The study found that women leaders were perceived as:
- Having more “caretaker” behaviors, such as supporting others and rewarding subordinates.
- Being less effective at “take charge” behaviors, such as delegating and problem solving.
In addition, the study found that these perceptions were not validated by observation of actual leadership behaviors.
Alice H. Eagly, one of the authors of Through the Labyrinth, suggests that women in high-level leadership positions exhibit similar behaviors as their male counterparts. Her theory is that women have to navigate a “labyrinth” of challenges and obstacles, and only those who use the same leadership behaviors as men make it through the labyrinth.
The Dilemma for Women
A separate report by Catalyst found that women leaders face a dilemma that male leaders don’t as a result of stereotyping.
- First, women leaders are perceived as too soft or too tough, but never just right.
- Second, women leaders face higher standards and lower rewards than men.
- Third, women leaders are perceived as competent or like-able, but rarely both.
Some Good News
On a more positive note, women leaders display more of the characteristics associated with “transformational” leadership—they are inspirational, they empower others, they act as positive role models, they encourage followers to take initiative and be creative, etc. In other words, women have the potential to be more effective leaders than men.
The next challenge for women is organizational. An extensive study by McKinsey looked into how women contribute to the U.S. economy, how their work benefits individual organizations, and what prevents women from making even greater contributions or reaching higher levels in those organizations.ix The results of the study are described below.
- Specific barriers that led women to remain at their current job level or leave their job for another include a lack of:
- Role models
- Inclusion in informal networks
- A sponsor in upper management to create opportunities
- Many men (and women) eliminate women candidates for higher level positions, assuming that they can’t handle the additional work responsibilities along with their family responsibilities.
- Managers evaluate women and men for promotions differently:
- Women’s promotions are based on their performance.
- Men’s promotions are based on their potential.
The authors of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders offer additional insights about organizational barriers. They tell us that women have more difficulty:
- Fitting in with the organization’s culture—building social capital or strategic relationships.
- Obtaining desirable assignments that will help them get promoted.
Real World Example
A 2011 study by the American Association of School Administrators found that 24 percent of school district superintendents are women, even though 76 percent of teachers are women. So, in an industry that is overwhelmingly female in the lower ranks, it is still dominated by men in the top ranks. Furthermore, women’s path to the top was most often through central office administration, for example as assistant superintendents. Men often went directly from a principal’s job to superintendent. As a result, men tended to be younger when they became superintendents, while women were older and had more formal education and teaching experience. It appears that men and women are promoted according to different standards.
How Organizations Choose to Address These Challenges
Researchers found three different perspectives on gender differences as they relate to leadership opportunities.
- Women and men leaders are not significantly different; therefore, they should be treated the same.
- Organizations that adopt this perspective believe the best way to get more women in upper levels of leadership is to recruit more women overall—i.e., it’s a pipeline issue.
- Women and men leaders are significantly different; therefore, they should be treated separately.
- Organizations that adopt this perspective believe women have been under-valued and need customized programs such as flex time, job sharing, expanded maternity leave, and mentoring in order to attract and retain talented women.
- Women and men leaders are not significantly different, but people believe they are. These perceptions (stereotypes) create challenges and barriers.
Organizations that adopt this perspective believe the biases should be addressed—by highlighting women in non-traditional roles (such as senior engineers) and by offering men and women the opportunity to work directly with women leaders so they can experience first-hand whether their assumptions are accurate or not. They can also provide training to get people to understand their perceptions and biases.
The McKinsey study also found that women have deep-seated beliefs that hold them back from the highest levels of leadership.
- Many women wait to pursue a position until they know they have the skills for the job, whereas men will pursue a position before they possess the needed skills.
- Many women wait to be offered a promotion or different position, whereas men proactively ask for promotions and raises.
- Many women prefer to remain in their current position if they believe the next step up will be devoid of personal meaning and simply involve more meetings and corporate politics. Contrast that with most men who are more focused on climbing the corporate ladder at any cost.
Lack of Self-Confidence
Research from the Hay Group found that women may avoid pursuing certain tasks because they lack confidence in their ability to succeed. When given a choice between selecting a leadership task or a group-member task, women were more likely to choose the group-member task when they lacked the confidence to complete the leadership task. Men, on the other hand, are less likely to choose a task based on their level of confidence.
Strong Inner Critic
Women seem to have a stronger “inner critic” than men.
- Women may have a more deep-seated fear of rejection than men. As a result, women may hold themselves back when they are uncertain of the outcome.
- Women themselves may internalize society’s negative beliefs about their ability to fill leadership positions and perform challenging tasks, causing them to underestimate their own leadership abilities.
Group Activity: Identifying Challenges
Instructions: Read the following scenario. Identify what specific societal, organizational, and self-imposed challenges Maria might experience as she pursues a leadership position. Then, answer the remaining questions.
Scenario: Maria is a mid-level manager at a high-tech business. There is about a 3:1 ratio of male managers to female managers at her level. Maria hasn’t experienced any outright discrimination, at least that she knows of. However, she has wondered why there aren’t more women at her level since new hires are about 50 percent men and 50 percent women. At her company, the culture is informal and relaxed; however, the expectation is that all employees will work long hours. Maria is the main caregiver to her aging parents, so she feels constantly conflicted about prioritizing work vs. family. In addition, socializing and shop talk revolve around golfing. Since Maria isn’t a golfer, she misses out on conversations about the future direction of the company when she doesn’t participate in these discussions with the group.
Maria has heard that the company is opening a new office in Texas and knows that being assigned as manager of the new office would be a huge career opportunity and advancement. However, she is unsure whether or not to pursue the position, and if she did, what her chances of getting it would be.
- What actions can Gloria take to try to overcome these challenges?