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As long as we associate leadership with masculinity, women will be overlooked

April 9, 2019
Diversity & Inclusion

Six years ago, I wrote an article arguing that women weren’t unrepresented in the leadership ranks due to their unwillingness to “lean in” or inability to lead, but because of our failure to effectively weed out incompetent men. In that article, which has become one of HBR’s most-read pieces, I argued that instead of lowering our standards for women, we had to raise the bar for men. That article touched a nerve, and it continues to do so.

Since then, a range of paradigmatic leadership events – from the rise of Trump and the global resurgence of populism to the #metoo age, along with the prevalence of brash narcissistic male leaders and the continuous pessimism in the quality of our corporate and political leaders – has ensured that my argument about incompetent men remained sadly relevant.

Unfortunately, the only way to explain the widespread appeal of this message is that political and business leaders are largely failing their followers and subordinates and the majority of us continue to experience leadership in a rather negative way.

In an ideal world, leaders would follow science-based practices and prioritize engaging with and inspiring their employees, and providing them with a sense of meaning and purpose. Instead, we continue to see that the average performance of leaders and managers is pretty disappointing. More bosses are contributing to burnout, anxiety, boredom, and productivity losses than driving top team or organizational performance. Just google “my boss is” to see how most people experience leadership in their work and careers: “crazy, abusive, unbearable, toxic…” and some other options that are just too rude to repeat here.

So long as we continue to associate leadership with masculine features, we can expect female leaders to be evaluated more negatively even when their performance is higher than that of their male counterparts, and even when those who evaluate them are women. For instance, a recent study on social sensing, in which male and female leaders were tagged with sociometric badges that monitored everything they did and said for weeks, showed that despite non-existing behavioral or performance differences between men and women, men were promoted to leadership roles much more frequently than women were.

While overall gender differences in leadership effectiveness are generally non-existent, meta-analytic studies show that men tend to perform better when the focus is on managing tasks, while women tend to perform better when the focus is on managing people, which includes attending to people’s attitudes, values, and motivation. (These differences are predominantly attributable to cultural constructs, not biological differences.) Since AI is expected to automate most of the task-oriented elements of leadership, particularly if they involve data-driven decisions, one would expect there will be an even bigger premium for leaders with strong people-skills and higher levels of EQ. That is because people will always crave human attention, empathy, and validation, which machines will not replicate anytime soon.

Yet, even though we should all agree that women don’t demonstrate motivation or ability deficits that inhibit their capacity for leadership, we still have a lot of work to do if we want to see a bigger proportion of talented women reach positions of leadership.

Indeed, as much as we understand the theoretical importance of leadership as a key driver of organizational, business, and societal success, we are still living in a world where most leaders are not evaluated objectively, and where discussions around the performance of leaders tend to be diluted to a matter of preferences, politics, or ideology. Subjective evaluations rule, and perceptions trump reality.

Until this is fixed, there is not much benefit in improving our leader selection process. Even if we were using a data-driven system that objectively selected leaders based on their actual potential – paying attention to competence, humility, and integrity rather than confidence, charisma, and narcissism – it wouldn’t do much good if we proceeded to judge the performance of those same leaders via subjective, prejudiced, or biased human opinions. In other words, removing bias at the selection point will fix nothing if there’s still plenty of bias contaminating our performance management systems.

And yet, if our solution is to train women to emulate the behavior of men, by asking them to promote themselves more, take credit for other people’s achievements, blame others for their own mistakes, and focus on their own personal career interests, as opposed to the welfare of their teams or organization, we may end up increasing the representation of women in leadership without increasing the quality of our leaders. In this scenario, women will have to out-male males in order to advance in an inherently flawed system where bad guys (and gals) win. Unless our goal is to make it easier for incompetent women to succeed – much as it is for men – there is little to gain from this approach.

This would also end up harming the career prospects of men who lack “traditional” masculine leadership traits but possess the qualities that could potentially make them into great leaders:being less bold, less reckless, and less self-centered, and more altruistic, ethical, and self-aware.

In sum, the main reason why competent women are less able to emerge as leaders than they ought to be is that our preference for incompetent men is far more acute than it should be: too many leadership roles are given to incompetent men when there are better women – as well as men – who continue to be overlooked.

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Source: Harvard Business Review

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