The eye only sees what the mind is prepared to comprehend. – Henri Bergson
Now that the question, “Can women lead?” has been effectively answered in the affirmative, scholars have now moved on to “Do women and men lead differently, and who is more effective?” (Northouse, 2016). Although it might be simpler to address these questions, perhaps the focus should be that in light of the fact that women graduate with more degrees than men, and make up almost half of the labor force (Northouse, 2016), the larger question that needs answered is, “Why the disproportionate absence of women in the top leadership positions?
If we start our analysis at our beginning as developing human beings, we can learn what stereotypes we accepted and how our environment shaped our thoughts and intentions toward gender. Gender stereotypes continue to wield persuasive power; they are highly resistant to change (Northouse, 2016). We learn about how women and men are supposed to be, and as adults we perpetuate these beliefs leading to biased judgements (Northouse, 2016).
The most difficult biased judgements to combat are those that are hidden under the surface – our unconscious biases. These unconscious biases exist in us all, and can run counter to what we profess to be our beliefs consciously (Kagetsu & Gunderman, 2017). The biases that affect women in leadership can take many forms. Affinity bias is where we prefer those people like us (Tsai & Rosen, 2015). This is problematic as it is men who typically hire for top positions (Bosak & Sczesny, 2011). Other factors contributing to female leadership disproportionality can be attributed to selection bias, which suggests that male leaders support and promote other male leaders preferentially (Bosak & Sczesny, 2011). These biases and stereotype assumptions can also lead to problems with qualified females securing mentors, and being included in key networks (Northouse, 2016).
For a moment, I ask you reading to imagine in your own mind what the first image is when I ask you to envision who you think a leader looks like. In that flash of that first second, did you see a man, standing tall, leading a group of other men, or a man standing slightly taller than everyone else? Under the aforementioned attributes, many people are inadvertently excluded or unnoticed for leadership advancement. The problem with this is two-fold. First, the definition of a leader and what makes a great leader has changed with the research. Gone are the days where a top-down, authoritarian leader is the most effective for the majority of situations. Now, an effective leader includes many traits and skills that women more exhibit – a democratic, participative style (Northouse, 2016). Secondly, holding onto this image and hiring with that image in mind either consciously or unconsciously, perpetuates a prejudice against potential female leaders whose predominately communal (e.g., sympathetic, affectionate) qualities preclude consideration in favor of attributes more agentic (e.g., dominant, assertive) (Northouse, 2016).
Would that image of the authoritarian male be the first for so many if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency? She undoubtedly would have changed the face of what a leader looks like. Although on paper vastly more qualified, her bid for President fell short in 2016. Was it really because of her emails and Benghazi (in both there were exhaustive investigations, both yielding no convictions), that she fell short, or was it something else? Research has shown there is a negative social cost and backlash for women who self-promote themselves, which is precisely what one must do to win elections (Northouse, 2016). Breaking the glass ceiling, that seemingly impassable, invisible barrier to our number one leadership position in the nation, for now, must wait.
There is a real cost to organizations that cannot see leadership potential in all its different forms. It’s time we to begin to re-envision how we characterize leadership, from how it is described to how it might look. Companies lose out on innovation, which creates a talent and innovation deficit. If our goal is to truly hire and promote the best suited individual, we need to lay bare and look deeply into ourselves to find and eliminate our outdated, deeply ingrained notions, stereotypes and assumptions that no longer (if ever) served if we wish to overcome the deficit gap of gender leadership inequality.
Bosak, J., & Sczesny, S. (2011). Gender bias in leader selection? Evidence from a hiring simulation study. Sex Roles, 65, 234–242. doi: 10.1007/s11199-011-0012-7
Kagetsu, N. & Gunderman, R. B. (2017, September 1). Unconscious bias. Journal of the American College of Radiology 14(9). 1253-1255. Retrieved from https://www-clinicalkey-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/#!/content/playContent/1-s2.0-S1546144017302090?returnurl=null&referrer=null
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, Inc
Tsai, S. & Rosen, D. (2015). Know thyself: Affinity bias in the legal profession. Retrieved from https://apps.americanbar.org/litigation/committees/womanadvocate/articles/winter2015-0315-know-thyself-affinity-bias-legal-profession.html