Why aren’t there more women in power positions? This is a question which has sparked debates over the years across continents. There are several statistics that support this question. Data collected in October 2017 shows that women accounted for just 25.3 % of board members in the largest publicly listed companies registered in EU member states. In addition, very few women reach the highest positions in large companies: less than 1 in 10 companies have a female chair or Chief Executive Officer. ¹
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 and human capital wasted.
Barriers and bias
There are several explanations given for the astounding gender gap. For this 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 often tagged as ‘deceitful, pushy, aggressive, abrasive, self-serving’ whereas ambition in men is a valued leadership trait. Another thing often heard is that women are not ambitious. This myth debilitates women from setting and achieving goals. Research indicates that “a 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.”1
- 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. Another belief is that women choose to satisfy other’s views on how they should lead rather than following their own gut instinct. This leads to a feeling of inauthenticity which results in a lack of trust in the person. When a leader is not trusted, her decisions will not be accepted and enforced. In addition, 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 therefore, cannot lead with authority.
- Demands of their family life. Women are still the primary caregivers in families and have the primary responsibility in family matters. They are required to interrupt or sacrifice on their careers for their families. As a result, companies take the view that work/career is not their first priority. Research shows that women who made it to the management levels are often childless or waited to attain career success before starting their families. The perception is that a woman with a family needs to give her time at home in the evening and cannot undertake work responsibilities that might need a stretch in work hours.
- Difficulty in building social capital. A very important aspect of reaching a leadership position is that one is the face of the company and adds 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 women make an effort to join in, more often than not the networking activities are more male-orientated like golf or clubbing.
- Lack of mentors/sponsors. Mentorship has been a long-term issue, especially in areas where the senior people are men. People still tend to identify with 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 surrounding 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 keep them from advancing in their careers. In general, 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?