4 Reasons for the Gap in Women Leaders and 4 Things to do to Address It

“You mean there has never been a girl President?” my almost ten-year-old son asks.   

“No.”  I say. 

“And there has never been a girl Vice President?” he inquires.  “Until now?” 

“Yes.”  I say.

“Well, Paigey could be either one day.”  

And he turns his attention to something else.

His matter-of-fact way of stating that his sister- or any girl for that matter- could be President or Vice President of the United States just makes sense to him.  In his frame of reference, there never having been one is what doesn’t.  

But the realization that something just doesn’t make good sense, is different from understanding what causes it. And understanding causes and how they are all interrelated may begin to chart a different path forward. 

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately, due to some work we are doing, delving into the research as to why there aren’t more women in leadership roles.  Some of it may make total sense and some of it may surprise you: 

1. Cultural norms about gender roles:  From what a male and female’s role is inside and outside of the home, cultural norms play a role in explaining why women are not as prevalent in leadership roles.  This includes what research cites as a “masculine construction of management”, a trend of backlash in women working outside the home and parenting trends (see Celeste Headlee’s book Do Nothing for a fascinating summary on this), and norms on what fields of study are appropriate for women are all encompassed in this reason. Also related is the changing, yet still very real fact that in general, women spend more time than their husbands caregiving and on household chores. Part of these mindsets stem from very real biological differences and part of it is just learned norms, plain and simple. 

In addition, there is a significant amount of research published relating to the norm or standards for how a woman, particularly a female leader, should behave.  Women have to walk a fine line of not being seen as too feminine or too masculine when it comes to leading, much more so than men.  

2. Discrimination against women:  The fact that women leaders have to tread a finer line in standards or norms of behavior than men can extend into a hostile environment where women constantly have to prove themselves more than men do. Research in this arena also shows that in some cases, women are viewed as less competent than males simply because they are female, leading this to fall into the category of discrimination.  Issues with harassment lie in this category.  Sometimes this behavior is overt and sometimes it isn’t.  It is becoming less so. 

3. Systematic issues:  Most noted in this category in the research literature is the fact that less developmental and fewer mentoring opportunities are given to women.  Many top leadership roles require, and rightly so, experience with what the research calls “line” roles, meaning operational roles where there is responsibility for P&L.  Women are less present in these types of roles.  Women are more prevalent in roles that are not line roles and in fields that do not track towards these types of roles or leading in them. 

4. Women not having a desire to lead.  I have heard this one a lot.  I hear it more from men than I do women.  The research evidence points to the fact that the barriers or issues listed in the first three here are probably more of a cause in women not having a desire to lead and this is the effect.  Whether it is women experiencing more stressors in balancing the demands inside or outside the home, what they’ve been “taught” are roles that are acceptable or not acceptable, or constantly having to deal with the stress of proving themselves, women opt out of pursuing leadership roles. 

Knowing some key issues may help us address them.  What can or should be done?:

1. Modeling different norms.  My son seeming it bizarre that no woman has ever led the country he lives in may be because he sees girls leading all around him.  And seeing more men assume caregiving and household responsibilities impacts this as well.  Maybe his world view, and that of the peers of his generation- particularly of boys- finding it strange that there aren’t as many girls as boys in leadership roles, politics or otherwise, may be a leading factor in changing the trajectory of women in leadership.   You’ve got to see it to believe it is probably very true in this case. 

2. Calling out double standard behavior and expectations.  Since most of the discrimination issues cited in research literature stem from women being treated differently than men based on behavioral expectations, the awareness of this will hopefully allow people to champion consistent expectations while recognizing the unique talents and skills, and personality that each person (regardless of gender) brings to the table.  When comments or decisions aren’t made in reflection of this awareness and recognition, then the behavior or decision should be called into question.  

3. Providing focused and specific developmental and mentorship opportunities.  Specifically, women need to be put in roles where there is P&L responsibility and mentored by people who have these responsibilities. Companies that have clear plans and avenues for women to track into these opportunities will help breakdown systematic barriers by giving women the exposure and the experience needed for senior leadership. 

4. Taking the focus off gender (or any other characteristics that separates for that matter).  This may seem surprising to see in a post that thus far has been all about gender differences in perceptions, reality, and outcomes, but at the end of the day, people need to be leaders because they are leaders.  Focusing on promoting individuals that have both the skill and will to lead, regardless of gender, by providing equal opportunities to gain the skills needed, and the removal of barriers limiting the desire to lead is imperative for all of us.  I owe this to my daughter, but I also equally owe it to my sons.  What should build up one needn’t need to tear down or penalize the other. Doing so penalizes us all in the long run.  

For more information and further reading on this topic, including citations for various research summarized here, you might want to check out: 

Women, Employment and Organizations

Do Nothing

Women and Men in Organizations: Sex and Gender Issues at Work 

The Women’s Leadership Gap

Like this post?  You may also like: 

7 Things to Consider in Wage Fairness
All the Hype on Equal Pay. My Short Opinion.
Women, Stay in the Room!
Are There Differences in What Women and Men State as Career Needs and Goals?


Mary Ila Ward

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