Ingrained bias and workplace culture means we can fail to see the leadership potential of women.
Think about the best leader you’ve ever worked with. The person is likely to be inspiring; someone whose vision for the future motivated and drove you to success. Now consider: is this leader a man or a woman?
If you are like most people, the person you have brought to mind is male. This well-known psychological phenomenon is known as “think manager, think man”. It occurs because the traits we typically associate with leaders – forceful, dominant, strong, competent or even heroic – are stereotypically associated with men.
By contrast, there are fewer qualities stereotypically associated with women that we also associate with leadership, such as being a good communicator. I would go so far as to say that some of the qualities we see as being highly characteristic of women are incompatible with leadership.
“Think manager, think man” creates a problem for women who aspire to leadership roles. All of us have pre-existing expectations for leadership. When we are asked to evaluate someone’s leadership potential, we subconsciously compare them to our expectations. When our expectations are met, they become a projection. We attribute leadership qualities and behaviours to the person, even if they have never exhibited them.
Because our expectations of leadership are masculine, when we evaluate men’s potential, we are much more likely to see them as a good fit. Women do not meet our masculine expectations, therefore the projection is never triggered.
This male bias in our cognitive processing of leadership potential is powerful. “Think manager, think man” means we can fail to see women’s leadership potential. In fact, research suggests that men and women behave very similarly in senior roles, but men routinely receive higher leadership ratings.
The evidence for this bias in organisations is clear. Women are underrepresented in leadership roles, making up only 23% of top management positions. Think about your own organisation. Who is at the top? If there were no gender bias, men and women would be equally represented in leadership roles.
Unfortunately, the traditional organisation of work has sustained the mismatch between being a leader and being a woman. Hierarchical, top-down structures tend to reinforce existing masculine leadership cultures. When individuals report that informal advice sharing in their team tends to revolve around one or a few key high-status individuals, people tend to evaluate female leaders less favourably than their male counterparts.
Simply raising awareness of this bias is unlikely to solve the problem. Research suggests that asking individuals to be objective may actually strengthen bias. Instead, try making decision makers accountable for the gender gap. They can promote whatever ratio of men or women they want, but they will need to explain any gender gaps publically. This can lead to fairer decision making.
Additional research I have recently undertaken suggests bias may be reduced by certain interpersonal cultures that can develop around leaders. When individuals report that the interpersonal structure of their team is cohesive, exemplified by closely bonded relationships between team members in which individuals seek and share advice freely, they tend to evaluate female leaders highly – more highly than male leaders. This is good news for women.
The traditional world of work is changing. Increasingly, organisations are building flatter, cohesive interpersonal structures that facilitate rapid action and intensive knowledge sharing. The new interpersonal organisation of work may facilitate the recognition of women as leaders.
Many organisations still face a shortfall of women in leadership. This research points to subconscious cognitive bias as a source of this disconnect, suggesting that bias against women leaders is triggered not only by their gender, but also the informal relationships around them. Organisations wishing to promote more women to leadership roles should first examine the interpersonal culture in which work takes place.
By Raina Brands
Source: The Guardian
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