There is a leadership gap. Women don’t hold as many leadership positions as men. According to Alice Eagly, only 2% of Fortune 500 CEO positions are held by women.There is no clear cause (although there are a whole lot of possible causes). The barriers to women in leadership are cultural, organizational and individual. We hold beliefs about the appropriate behaviour of men and women that limit women. We hold beliefs about ourselves. Organizations develop structures and systems that reward men and limit women. And yes, women make choices that create their own limitations.
Many of the cultural barriers to women’s leadership are derived from implicit beliefs about the appropriateness of certain behaviours that are critical to leadership. For example, powerful women are believed to be unsuited for leadership when they talk more than average, whereas powerful men are believed to be more competent and more suited for leadership. When women get angry in the workplace they are judged as out of control and incompetent, whereas angry men are judged as more competent. Keep in mind that we are not aware of these judgments. In fact if you asked explicitly these same observers would tell you that “of course women make good leaders”. The judgment happens unconsciously.
The comments I received on these more detailed posts were interesting. They highlight the conundrum we face as leaders – do we accept social norms and change our behaviour to more appropriate “female” behaviour, or do we try to enlighten or change the way that culture and organizations see women?
This choice has very real consequences for many women. If we accept social norms, we may achieve some organizational success and acquire lower level leadership positions. However, it is unlikely that we will break through to more senior leadership positions, as they call for more traditional male behaviour, which women are judged as inappropriate and out of control.
If we choose to behave in a more masculine way, more talkative, engaged and action oriented we can, perhaps, be at the vanguard of changing the way both men and women think about what is “appropriate” behaviour by each of the stereotypes. This choice means that we’re investing in long-term gain for all women. It likely means that attainment of even moderate leadership roles might be beyond the reach of this less traditional female.
Many women used to say that you need to behave like a man to achieve leadership roles. In fact, the research suggests that you will be judged incompetent if you behave like a woman, (although people will like you), and judged angry, incompetent and unsuited for leadership if you behave like a man. So even if we could “behave like a man”, as Henry Higgins suggested in My Fair Lady, the result is not likely the acquisition of a leadership position.
So what’s a girl to do? Pick the pragmatic “behave like a girl” option, achieve moderate success and enjoy being liked? Or pick the more idealistic option to try to change how people see these stereotypes, fight through the challenges, take the risk that you might accomplish more, or you might be relegated to the category of “loose cannon”. That answer is personal to each individual. Maybe the question should be “Why Should a Woman be More Like a Man?”