If you think you understand why women are underrepresented in leadership, think again.
By Derek Lusk, Ph.D., and Jackie VanBroekhoven Sahm
You’ve read the articles, heard the popular explanations, and can rattle off the talking points: women are different, women are less capable, women are less interested, it’s the damn glass ceiling.
Here’s the thing: What you believe matters. If you think women are different, you can rationalize disparate treatment. If you think they’re less capable, you can justify denying advancement opportunities. If you think they’re less interested in leadership, you may think you are doing them a favor by keeping them out of the c-suite. And if you think the infamous glass ceiling is the only problem, you are missing an essential part of the story.
In other words, it’s time to dig deeper. So let’s.
Conventional Wisdom #1: Women Are Different from Men
Gender difference is a hotly debated topic that can be studied from various perspectives: biology, physiology, intelligence, morality, and other physical and psychological concepts.
However, when people are asked to describe what makes a good leader, they typically use the language of personality: visionary, confident, assertive, collaborative. Same goes when they describe bad bosses: arrogant, micromanagers, insensitive, passive aggressive, spineless.
Personality must be defined from two perspectives: identity and reputation. Identity is an individual’s self-concept— hopes, dreams, values, interests, and motives. It’s the consistent story you tell yourself about yourself. Your identity might be that of a moral, good person who’s an above average driver, really funny, and great in bed. You learn about yourself from other people; therefore, your identity is closely linked to and influenced by those within your cultural environment—especially as your personality develops in adolescence.
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Reputation is what everyone else thinks. Those who marry, befriend, fre, and promote us do so based on our reputation and how well we conform to their expectations. Consequently, we manage the impression we make to maximize acceptance and status and avoid backlash for not meeting others’ standards.
There are two consequential aspects of reputation: the bright side and dark side of human nature. The bright side shows when you put your best foot forward— who you are on a first date or when you’re starting a new job. The dark side emerges when your internal resources break down and you fail to meet role expectations. This is who you are when stressed, bored, irritated, annoyed, or just unconcerned with the impression you’re making—in other words, when you’re being your purest, unvarnished self.
Now we come to the key question: Are women and men different as measured by the bright and dark side of personality? Considering women are stereotyped as passive and relationship-oriented, and the female gender role also fits this description, we’d expect differences on the bright side of personality as women manage impressions to meet social expectations. Moreover, we’d hypothesize fewer differences on the dark side of personality, because it measures how people behave when they lose self-control and fail to meet role expectations.
This is consistent with the data: Women score lower on bright side dimensions associated with dominance and higher on dimensions associated with modesty and relationships. Yet, when it comes to how people behave when they let their guard down, women and men score virtually the same. This suggests the differences are socially created rather than biologically driven. Further, the variance attributed to gender across all personality dimensions—bright and dark side—is less than 1 or 2 percent. In other words, inconsequential.
The verdict: MYTH
Personality from a reputational standpoint does not differ as much as popular stereotypes suggest. Differences that do exist are essentially irrelevant and likely a function of gender role expectations more than inherent gender disparities.
Conventional Wisdom #2: Women Are Less Capable Leaders
This view is commonly held by those who believe effective leadership is about toughness, command, and control; motivating people through rigid systems of reward and punishment; and closely supervising work and pushing others for results. These characteristics are often stereotypically ascribed to men, while women are viewed as lacking. Although these traits can be valuable, they were more effective in the agrarian and industrial economies of our past.
The modern economy is powered less by manual labor and more by knowledge workers who have different expectations about leadership. Progressive organizations believe leadership is about building relationships, treating employees as individuals, motivating through shared vision and purpose, offering flexibility, and rewarding collective effort—and seek leaders with these traits. Many people would describe these as nurturing leadership behaviors, or “soft” skills that are stereotypically ascribed to women.
In truth, the most effective leaders balance driving structure and accountability with providing individual attention and support to subordinates. They set a strategic vision and also execute and manage operations. And they balance confidence and humility, cooperation with competition, and inspire followers without force or coercion.
Most important, emerging research shows that this type of balanced leadership leads to better business outcomes. In fact, Fortune 500 companies with more female board members achieve significantly higher financial performance than those with fewer.
The verdict: MYTH
Emerging research suggests women may actually be more effective leaders, and that gender balance at the board level translates to a healthier bottom line.
Conventional Wisdom #3: Women Aren’t Interested in Advancement
Socioanalytic theory has three things to say about this view. First, all people search for love, acceptance, companionship, and harmonious relationships; we call this motive getting along. Second, all people strive to achieve status, glory, and access to resources; we call this motive getting ahead. Third, everyone needs a system of beliefs through which they make sense of the world and create structure, order, and predictability in their life; we call this motive finding meaning.
Consequently, all people—including women—are inherently interested in status and leadership roles.
People resolve these universal motives through interactions with others. In fact, the majority of life is spent bouncing from one interaction to the next. After each, both parties evaluate the other’s performance. In particular, you think in terms of how rewarding the other person was to deal with. Did they grant you status, acceptance, or meaning?
Acceptance and status are straightforward. You like others who ingratiate you, trust you, defer to you for leadership, and make you feel unique and special. Finding meaning is related to how easily others can predict your future actions. Your predictability is determined by how well you play your socially constructed roles: friend, mother, husband, competitor, and so on. Play them right and people will like you; get them wrong and face the consequences.
Thousands of years of evolutionary adaptation and socialization have shaped our thinking to see the female role as nurturing and relationship-oriented and the male role as aggressive and status-seeking. Gender roles—to a certain extent—start outside the mind and become internalized as children observe, learn, and adopt identities and expectations from parents and others in the community. This becomes a self-fulfilling cycle as beliefs are passed down, internalized, and then reinforced by the outside world.
Studies reveal that if you place a child in a room by themselves, they play with every toy regardless of whether it’s Barbie or a monster truck. But if you invite another child to join, the same child will play only with toys that correspond to their gender; the pressure to conform to others’ gender expectations is real.
Laurie Rudman at Rutgers University asked study participants to rate 64 traits as desirable-undesirable for women and men. Women were rated higher on passive and low status traits like emotional, warm, interested in children, good listener, supportive, and humble. Men were described with high status traits like career-oriented, leader-like, competitive, assertive, independent, ambitious, aggressive, and intelligent. Further, the most significant high status trait for women was “attending to appearance,” suggesting the best chance they have to climb the organizational hierarchy is to look attractive. Other studies show the larger the gender inequality within a culture, the more low-status traits are assigned to young girls, which negatively impacts their self-esteem.
This research illustrates the importance of well-validated personality assessments in the workplace. We recently looked at average scores for 45,792 women and men from around the world and found that less than 2 percent of the variance in the motivation to get ahead, gain status, and outperform the competition is attributed to gender.
The verdict: MYTH
Women are deeply interested in status, influencing others, and leading organizations. Society is at fault for assigning passive, low-status traits and assuming they’re not interested in taking charge.
Conventional Wisdom #4: An Invisible Glass Ceiling Prevents Females from Advancing
The unconscious gender bias narrative offers a partially true but incomplete picture of what creates the glass ceiling effect. Women certainly encounter limiting gender stereotypes, experience less access to informal networks of influence and power, and are judged differently from their male counterparts.
A study by Yale researcher Victoria Brescoll, for example, found that women are evaluated more harshly than men when they make mistakes, particularly in occupations that are incongruent with gender stereotypes. That is, if a female police chief makes a mistake, her error is evaluated more negatively.
In addition, research from the University of Exeter suggests women are disproportionately promoted into roles and situations with increased risk and greater chance of failure. This creates a so-called glass cliff. Once women succeed in breaking through the ceiling, their status may be much more precarious than that of male counterparts.
However, the discussion around the glass ceiling often ignores two additional layers. Along with external obstacles, women must resolve internal barriers. Gender stereotypes actually become a part of many women’s identity during childhood, increasing self-doubt and decreasing self-worth.
Middle-school boys select science, technology, engineering, and math careers at a higher rate than girls and also believe they have more career opportunities. Researchers consistently find that girls receive better math grades but lower standardized test scores due to the female gender role that suggests women are not good at math. In fact, when girls are reminded of societal gender roles before engaging in stereotypically male activities—from chess to mathematics—they perform substantially below their true ability.
But what about girls and leadership? Researchers Michael Hoyt and Cara Kennedy investigated the perceptions of adolescent girls who were taking part in a youth leadership development program. Before the program, when they asked 10 girls questions about identity, power, and leadership, all used stereotypical terms. They thought leaders should be powerful, hard-charging, confident, and brave—as opposed to cooperative, humble, and balanced.
Because of the power distance between women and men, and the mismatch between their views of leadership and self-identity, the girls spoke of their own oppression. In a very explicit way, they described themselves as followers and said they don’t think of women as strong and leader-like. The glass ceiling, it would appear, is reinforced both from the outside and the inside. Another layer that’s often overlooked: All people fall prey to the “similar to me” bias—that is, we all tend to prefer others who resemble ourselves.
Accordingly, when a male senior executive chooses his successor, hires a new employee, or is asked to identify a pool of high potentials, he’s likely to choose candidates whose strengths and attributes mirror his own. This, unfortunately, results in a rather homogenous pool of talent being considered for senior leadership roles. Not only are women overlooked and underestimated, but they’re simply outnumbered too.
The verdict: CONFIRMED, BUT INCOMPLETE
The glass ceiling is created by a combination of external barriers, gender stereotypes, and broad unconscious biases, as well as the internalization of these attitudes and obstacles among women and girls.
Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Maybe, but change starts by understanding the realities of any situation. As talent management professionals, we have the opportunity and obligation to lead our organizations to better outcomes. And as citizens of society, we must challenge our own thinking and that of others within our professional circles. Allow us to recommend a fvestep path forward:
1. Focus on our similarities. Men and women are more alike than different. Gender accounts for less than 1 percent of the fluctuation in personality, partly because we play multiple roles in life: consultant, customer service representative, account manager, leader, and organizational citizen. Unlike intelligence testing or unstructured interviews, personality is fair and objective; it doesn’t activate stereotypes. Assigning stereotypes at the individual level is inaccurate and unethical. People differ much more within gender than between gender. Moreover, industrial and organizational psychologists will tell you that successful performance requires both aggressive (driving others) and relationship-oriented (building teams and fostering engagement) competencies.
2. Put down your broad brush. The real problem is subjective stereotyping. Starting in childhood and persisting throughout adulthood, women are assigned weaker, lower-status adjectives and ultimately get pigeon-holed into supportive roles and tactical middle-management positions. Deviating outside of this expectation—in other words, being selfish and strategic—comes with social consequences, thus making it more politically challenging for women to get ahead. Let’s focus on educating people about unconscious biases and train our leaders to make better, more balanced decisions about talent.
3. Stop doling out tokens. Many women who have succeeded in reaching the c-suite lead staf or support functions, such as in human resources, finance, or legal. This reinforces the stereotype that women lack strategic skills to be true leaders and are too operational.
We need to move beyond having the token female board member and begin giving women access to strategic roles with P&L responsibility much earlier in their careers. Broadening the talent pool for these roles is critical, and must happen from the bottom up and from the top down.
4. Separate gender and diversity initiatives. The term gender diversity should be replaced with gender balance. Diversity programs that are designed to celebrate gender differences are well-intentioned but misled. Focusing on differences serves only to widen the gap, solidify the stereotypes, and perpetuate the problem. The issue of gender imbalance cannot be addressed by creating women-only networks, mentorship programs, or parking the issue under the diversity umbrella.
5. Think differently and take responsibility. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them. We are all complicit and must commit to making major societal and organizational changes if we ever hope to close the gap and achieve gender parity.
Derek Lusk, Ph.D., is the head of executive assessment and leadership development at AIIR Consulting. In this role, he helps Fortune 500 organizations use the science of leadership to improve performance at the executive level. He has a strong track record of assisting organizations with succession planning, executive transitions, diversity and inclusion, and culture change initiatives.
Jackie VanBroekhoven Sahm is director of global learning at Hogan Assessment Systems, where she oversees the design, delivery, and quality of its learning and certification programs. She also supports the development of custom behavior-based interview systems and high-potential identification systems.