What's Holding Women Back?

by Beth O'Neill

Have you taken inventory of your co-workers recently? And have you noticed the many women, and, specifically, women in leadership roles? While this is true of IA, we represent an anomaly in the corporate world (hint: perhaps because of our balanced, humanistic, results-process-relationship philosophy). In general, women’s advancement is sadly lacking in workplaces all over the world.

What the Studies Say

Recently, I was partnering with a Stanford colleague on a leadership academy presentation, and she suggested we show a video by Stanford Sociology Professor Shelley Correll. Correll asserts that, “There has been a stall in the progress of gender equality. After a rapid progress in the mid-70's and 80's, since the mid-90's things haven’t gotten worse, but they haven’t gotten better.” She backs that up with a few research studies that shocked me.

In one study, researchers asked psychology faculty from all over the country to evaluate candidates for an adjunct faculty role. Half of the evaluators reviewed resumes with a woman’s name. The other half got the same resume with a man’s name. Seventy-nine percent of the candidates with male names were deemed worthy of hire. Only 49% of the candidates with the woman’s name were deemed worthy of hire. On top of that, evaluators wrote four-times more “doubt-worthy statements” on the women’s reviews.

In another study, researchers asked evaluators to identify the best police chief candidate. Two resumes were created. One resume described a candidate with more education and the other with more experience. In the first round, the candidates were rated with no name. Evaluators overwhelming favored the resume with more education. In the second phase, they distributed resumes associating a man’s name with more education and a women’s name with more experience. As you would expect, the man received more favorable evaluations. In the final phase, they swapped names so that a woman was identified with more education and men with experience. Evaluators overwhelmingly picked the man. The reason cited was that the man had more experience.

Women Face a Higher Hurdle

Correll says that gender stereotypes bias the evaluations of individuals due to “male advantaging.” A man is evaluated more positively if the evaluators know his gender, whereas a woman is evaluated more negatively when the evaluators know her gender. The studies highlight a gender bias – which Correll defines as “an error in decision making.”

From this we know that women have a higher hurdle to success in business, as well as many other endeavors. Correll says that women are less likely than men to have influence in a group - even when the woman is defined as the expert. She also says women are less likely to get credit for their ideas.

Here’s the kicker - both genders are prone to the bias. In other words, women evaluate women as harshly as men.

Cheryl Sanberg’s book, Lean In, has launched a new conversation about women in leadership. Her enthusiasm and passion, juxtaposed with the rather daunting Stanford research, has me digging for a pathway that gets us from our current state to a future state more akin to the Sanberg model.

Toward Balance

Correll says, “Women are thought to be better at nurturing and caretaking – which are less valued in the workplace. Men are expected to be assertive and action oriented, but not modest or weak.” This suggests, in general, that women come from the heart. Men come from the head. When I reflect on the seven practices of a Facilitative Leader, I see a partnership of both. Each has an element of traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics:

  • Results, Process, Relationship Balance.
  • Levels of Involvement in Decision Making.
  • Facilitate Agreement.
  • Coaching for Performance.
  • Share an Inspiring Vision.
  • Pathways to Action.
  • Celebrate Accomplishments.

We’re living in a world where the most unlikely entities/organizations/people are collaborating. (Rhianna and Coldplay: really?) And we know that collaboration involves more traditionally feminine qualities (e.g., involving people in decision making instead of simply telling people what to do – valuing relationships, not just results, and so on). Perhaps there will come a time, in the not-so-distant future, when the lines blur and the bias fades as the exigencies of our world force us to embrace these less-valued capabilities. By raising our consciousness, people like Correll and Sanberg are taking us in that direction.

If you are interested in a balanced approach to leadership, be sure to take a look at our Facilitative Leadership and Women in Leadership programs.

Tags : leadership women leaders