Today more women are working than ever before.
According to a 20184 survey, over 70 percent of women aged 16–64 are employed, this percentage has increased from slightly over half (53 percent) in 1971. Women represent just under half (46.5 percent in 2017) of the total labor force in the UK. The majority of mothers work. In 2014, almost as many women with children (74.1 percent) participated in the labor force as women with no children (75 percent). In terms of leadership, women’s board representation in FTSE100 companies increased from 11 percent in 2007 to 28 percent in 2017. Not exactly half, is it? And, when we look at the percentage of women in senior leadership roles, this has remained even lower at 22 percent in 2018. A report by Catalyst says that women in the Fortune 500 now make up 14.6 percent of executive officers, only 8.1 percent of the highest paid and under five percent of CEOs.
So, what is happening in between the lower rungs to leadership positions as women progress through the ranks? Why aren’t we seeing more women on boards, and in leadership positions when the workforce is evenly split at the entry level?
Lack of women leadership means that women can often face more bullying in the workplace, the workforces is less diverse at the top, and that the mental well-being of female employees can suffer too as they feel discriminated against and do not have the same opportunities to progress. The lack of women leaders also creates a paucity of role models that can inspire other women to enter and stay in the workforce.
Studies have shown that unconscious bias is rife in the workplace. Gender stereotypes, in particular, are everywhere. It is in the language that we use, and it is the way we perceive women in the workplace.
Female leaders, in particular, can be affected by a double-bind bias or the problem of a mismatch between what is expected of a leader, and what is expected from a woman. Psychology research has shown that there are two primary kinds of gender bias that affect women, called the descriptive and prescriptive bias. Descriptive bias is the labels we attach and associate with certain social groups and communities, and prescriptive bias is how they are expected to behave. And, when someone does not conform to these prescribed roles and behaviors they can be penalized or punished. Women, for instance, are traditionally expected to be caring, warm, deferential, emotional, sensitive, and so on, and men are expected to be assertive, rational, competent and objective. So, when it comes to promotion, these traits are sometimes automatically prescribed to people as per their gender without detailed information about their personalities, thereby a man, in general, is assumed to be a better fit as a leader.
The other side of this is prescriptive bias is when a woman does not fit the role that is traditionally assigned to her and attempts to claim a traditionally male position is seen as breaking the norm. So, when a woman is decisive, she might be perceived as “brusque” and “abrupt”. Therefore, for the same kind of leadership behavior, women might be penalized while a man is commended.
This is the problem of “likability”, where women who are not assertive and fit the gender stereotype of a woman as being gentle and caring are liked more but not considered as leadership material. On the other hand, women who display traditional “masculine” qualities such as assertiveness, forcefulness, and ambition are labeled as “bitchy”, unfeminine and aggressive, and hence generally disliked. In both cases, women are then less likely to be promoted than a man. Men do not face the same problem, because what is considered “bossy” in a woman are considered leadership qualities in a man.
Madeline Heilman, a social and organizational psychologist who is Professor of Psychology at NYU showed that when a man helps out in the workplace, he is acknowledged and appreciated, and if he does not, it does not matter much. However, when a woman helps out, it is taken for granted, because that is her traditional role, and if she doesn’t, she is considered mean and unhelpful, character traits that are not assigned to a leader.
Sheryl Sandberg in her book “Lean In” cites an experiment conducted at Columbia Business School and New York University by professors Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson, respectively. They selected the résumé of a real-life female entrepreneur who was quite successful and noted for her extroverted personality. The woman’s real name, Heidi, was placed on one set of identical résu.més, and a man’s name, Howard, on another. Half of a group of business school students read one resume, and the other half the other. The result was remarkable. The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent. However, Howard was judged to be likable and a good colleague. Heidi, however, was seen as aggressive, selfish and not someone who would be a team player, and who they’d like to work with. This demonstrated the inherent bias that people carry within about typical gender roles and behaviors, and how men and women are judged by different rules, even when they are equally competent.
What can be done?
It is important that we are aware of these biases that can exist unknowingly, recognize and acknowledge them. It is no point saying that we are all unbiased and unprejudiced because these are unconscious biases that are shaped by our cultural and social conditioning.
For both men and women, it is important to speak out and interrupt if they notice any remarks that demonstrate this kind of prejudice, such as “she is emotional” or that “she is too talkative” or that “she is not very caring”, as these can affect how competence is perceived, and these are not labels that would normally be assigned to men in the same situation.
Appropriate bias training is important for all members of the staff so that they are aware of not only their actions but also the language and words that they employ. Words, even when meant as a joke or banter, can create a feeling of mistrust rather than a positive workplace. It is really important that we create a culture where we bring men into this debate and discourse as much as women, and men are seen as ambassadors for equality and female leaders. Nevertheless, it is also important to consider that it is not just men who carry these biases, as women can discriminate against women too, and penalize other women for being successful, or trying to be.
And, most importantly, companies and organizations have to take a closer look at their workplace policies and redefine what a “leader” really means. We need to actively work towards assessing the traditional gender norms, and the way we assign leadership qualities.
By Dr. Pragya Agarwal
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