Females are more than just capable leaders; they’re repeatedly demonstrating excellence in leadership across the globe. Yet women are still not securing higher level leadership positions in the workplace. In fact, according to a report by Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times, there’s recently been a marked decline in the percentage of female leaders.
When we talk about women in business, we often hear about the glass ceiling. We have educated, hard-working, experienced and capable women; yet they’re not reaching top level positions. The problem is not a lack of effort or ambition. It is simply a result of invisible hurdles that women face when racing toward the end of the corporate finish line.
There are two major overarching factors, and many small ones, which influence why we don’t choose women over their male counterparts.
You can’t be what you can’t see.Marian Wright Edelman
Men have, at least in the Western world, been the traditional choice for leadership. This comes from centuries of devaluing women as workers which has only recently begun to be corrected. Our perception of women is slowly changing as well as our perceptions of leadership. Even as recently as the 2018 election, we saw accusations of women being “too emotional” to run a country.
Ironically, we are finding that the “emotional” stereotype tacked on to female leaders is actually good for leadership roles because, as Prudy Gourguechon suggests in her Forbes article there is great value in empathy and compassion in business settings. We’re discovering, too, that women have always been allowed to be more emotional in a way that men have not in society. This means that women have had more opportunities to learn to regulate emotions. For everyone within a company, a firm grip on emotions which comes with high stress situations can be an extremely beneficial tool. This is one area where traditional cultural expectations actually play in favor of women upon closer inspection.
Stereotypes and Anti-Female Bias
Change is hard on people. As the older generations retire, the newer ones are tasked with filling those positions. Sometimes the idea of a woman, who is by nature the opposite of a male, filling the male role of a leader, can be too intimidating of a change. Another hurdle for aspiring female leaders is when people are responsible for filling their positions before they leave. They are more likely to choose somebody who reminds them of themselves. Because most of the retiring leaders are male, they are more likely to choose other males to fill their positions.
In one study by Arizona professor Elizabeth McClean, it was found that simply being male affected the peer perception of leadership ability. Again, this illustrates that tradition and bias are still factors for high-achieving women in business.
Answering the Challenge
So with this knowledge of hurdles, how can we overcome them as advocates for women? The answer is complex. But one way we can empower women is to empower ourselves with knowledge. We need to recognize that bias is holding us back from choosing the most qualified leaders. By making a conscientious effort to see women and recognize their value as leaders, we can continue to see women overcome the glass ceiling.
Look for Part 2 of this article, publishing on August 1, 2019