Victoria Rothe The Leadership Blog

You think women are bad leaders – you just don’t realise it yet.

If you think I’m wrong, read on.

Victoria Rothe. Podcast host and founder, The Leadership Blog.

Gender bias, or stereotyping, is an automatic generalisation made of individuals because of their gender. Deeply ingrained and often unconscious, gender bias is one of the most profoundly pervasive issues in business today.

2005 marked a publication of a study entitled ‘Women Take Care, Men Take Charge’, a key research paper evidencing that men are perceived to have more leadership aptitude than women.

Men were more likely to be characterised by dominance and ambition, with women being attributed softer skills like ‘friendliness’. Men and women both stereotyped men as being better problem solvers. However, the study found very little actual difference in leadership styles between men and women.

‘“There is nothing essential – that is universal and unvarying – in the natures of men and women”

-Carol Tavris, social psychologist

Are men and women fundamentally different?

To many people, Carl Tavris’ statement is simply unfathomable. Given the undeniable physical differences between men and women, it is an instinctive assumption to be made that this must translate into mental and behavioural distinctions.

Gender differences are also often explored and exploited in popular culture, including media (men’s magazines vs women’s magazines), television (soaps for women, sports for men) and advertising (beauty vs strength).

Gender divide continues to be a popular topic in pop psychology, forming the basis of books such as ‘Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus’ and ‘Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man’. It is no wonder that we are conditioned to think that there must be something deeply ingrained in gender psychology.

What do the figures say?

  • In this year, 2020, just 5% of FTSE 100 CEOs are female
  • The FTSE 250 performs even worse, with only 2% female CEOs
  • The highest paid male CEO (Tim Steiner, Ocado Group) earns £58,727,000 in total remuneration*
  • The highest paid female CEO (Emma Walmsley, GlaxoSmithKline), earns about 10% of that, at £5,887,000*
  • In the US, 37 women (7%) are currently running Fortune 500 companies

* Source: IG

Barriers to women in leadership:

Speaking to female leaders, some of the key barriers to women in leadership include:

  • Lack of support (few positive examples or other women to give advice; few men taking vested interest in female leadership development)
  • Negative mindsets (active pushback against promoting women)
  • Workplace structures (e.g. location, travel, hours)
  • Lack of support for family choices (maternity leave, flexible hours)
  • Open gender bias and sexism-Source: Forbes 2018

What has research shown?

There have been a host of studies into the principal leadership styles: transactional, transformation, laissez-faire, with little difference between men and women identified, concluding that gender is “not a reliable indicator of how that person would lead” (p.508, Early et al., 2003).

However, key differences are to be found in the perception of male and female leadership effectiveness, as proven by the ‘Women Take Care, Men Take Charge’ study, which examined 10 key leadership behaviours.

Men are seen to possess better problem-solving skills, meaning they ultimately command more respect and can use this to gain followers – something female leaders find much harder.

The most worrying conclusion of the study is that the ingrained perception of women as poor leaders means that men and women may unconsciously work to undermine the success and credibility of their female leader.

In the long run, this means women are more likely to underperform, be denied promotion, or even fall out of the process altogether, leaving to seek opportunities further afield. When this happens, this perceived lack of success is likely to be attributed to stereotypical female characteristics, including mental and emotional weakness, lack of resilience and prioritising family over career,

Unfortunately, the problem is so ubiquitous that, no matter where she ventures, the woman is likely to encounter these challenges time and again.

What can be done to address gender bias?

1. Bias awareness training and forums for escalation

It is very hard to be aware of the impact of something that you are simply not conscious of doing. A forum for proactive, open discussion where gender issues are discussed, with female participation, is a key first step to implementing change.

Further, processes for escalation where gender issues are identified need to be clearly defined. The issuing of supportive statements is not enough to drive and embed change.

2. Objective performance reviews

One way of circumnavigating gender bias in leadership is to focus on what has been done rather than how it has been done.

Whereas as men tend to be judged primarily on the ‘what’ of their results (e.g. increased sales revenue by 10%), women tend to be judged primarily on the ‘how’ (e.g. increased sales revenue by over-stretching team).

3. Consciousness of distinctly female needs

There may not be fundamental differences in male and female ability and performance, but there are differences in their needs.

Women, particularly those with childcare responsibilities, may often find themselves ostracised from company social and relationship-building activities, particularly those revolving around drinking, team sports or spending significant time away from their families.

A team made up of primarily male colleagues may not consciously try to ostracise a female member from social and relationship-building activity such as regular after-work drinks. However, it needs to be recognised that this habitual activity has an inevitable impact on how the male members may feel about working with and for each other, and this may ultimately mean they are less likely to be supportive of the female as either a leader or a colleague.

The bottom line

Male and female differences are a product of perception, not reality. Both, men and women, tend to hold female leaders to a higher standard. Conscious and rigorous awareness of bias and practical solution tools are required to instigate long-term change.