Why aren’t there more women in power positions? A question, which has sparked several debates over the years across continents. There are several statistics that support this question. Women account for 46% of people in employment across the EU and on average they have a higher level of education than their male colleagues: 34% of working women have some form of tertiary level education compared to 28% of men. Yet at the top levels of businesswomen remain under-represented. Women are outnumbered by men in leadership positions in the corporate sector. In April 2013, women accounted for 16.6% of board members of large publicly listed companies in the 27 EU Member States.
Research from various countries suggests that companies with a higher representation of women at the most senior levels deliver stronger organizational and financial performance as well as better corporate governance. Moreover, the lack of women in leadership positions means that female talent is being underused, human capital wasted and the quality of appointments to the highest positions may be compromise
There are several explanations and reasoning given for the astounding gender gap. For the gender gap to lessen, it is important for senior management to understand the key barriers that are responsible for this phenomenon. Only then can effective action be taken.
- Sex stereotyping leads to resistance to women’s leadership. There are several assumptions that come to the forefront when a woman is in a leadership or management position. These women are likely to be tagged as ‘deceitful, pushy, aggressive, abrasive, self-serving’ whereas ambition in men is a very valued leadership trait. Another thing often heard are that women are not ambitious. This myth debilitates women from declaring goals and working towards them. A recent study concluded that “women’s approach to the workplace in general and to leadership in particular, can have the superficial appearance of a lack of ambition, when judged against a male corporate culture.”2
- Issues with leadership style. Given the typical sex-role stereotyping, women often struggle to cultivate a style of leadership, which they and others are comfortable with – a style that reconciles the dichotomy between their feminine traits and leadership qualities. Most often it is observed that women choose to satisfy other’s views on how they should lead forsaking their natural way of dealing. This leads to a feeling of inauthenticity that often leads to lack of trust in the person. If the leader is not trusted, her decisions will not be accepted and enforced in the requisite manner. Women are known to prefer the more collaborative and participative leadership style, which also leads to the perceptions like they do not trust their decisions and are indecisive and deferential therefore, cannot lead with authority.
- Demands of their family life. Women are still the primary caregivers in their families and have the primary responsibility in family matters. They are required to interrupt or sacrifice on their careers for their families, take time off when children are ill. As a result, they progress more and earn less as the companies take the view that work/career is not their first priority. Women need to constantly make trade-offs between work and family life. Research shows that women who made it to the management levels are often childless or waited to attain career success before starting their families. Have you observed that a women said to be on the management track, gets off-tracked as soon as children enter the picture. The perception is that she needs to give her time at home in the evening and cannot undertake work responsibilities that might need a stretch in work hours. Family or children are not a consideration when putting a man in the leadership seat.
- Difficulty in building social capital. A very important aspect of reaching a leadership position is that one is the representative of the company and needs to put efforts into adding to the company’s standing in corporate and social circles. The balancing of family and work leaves women with no time to socialize professionally or attend out-of-hours professional functions. Effective networking is responsible for having the pulse of the industry, new business opportunities and collaborations. Even if the women make an effort to take time out, more often than not the management group are more male-dominated and therefore the networking activities are more male in orientation like sports or physical activities like golf, tennis, trekking or social events like clubbing.
- Lack of mentors/sponsors. Mentorship has been a long-term issue, especially in male-dominated areas, or areas where the senior people are men. People still tend to identify of younger colleagues of the same sex. So they may be more supportive, encouraging and helpful to young men than they are to young women. Also, because of specific laws governing appropriate behavior in the workplace, men may be reluctant to initiate mentoring a woman for fear of negative repercussions
The negative stereotypes about the work ethics of women provoked by society keep them from advancing in their careers. Society does not encourage women to become leaders in the workforce, only leaders in the household. How are you thinking through leadership in your teams?