Here's Why Women Aren't Leaders. Here's Why That's About to Change.
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Here's Why Women Aren't Leaders. Here's Why That's About to Change.

EXTERNAL FACTORS OFTEN CONTRIBUTE TO A WOMAN'S INABILITY TO GET AHEAD. BUT TIMES ARE CHANGING AND WOMEN ARE MORE POISED THAN EVER TO COME OUT ON TOP!

In Nina Burleigh’s article “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women” in the January 28th, 2015 issue of Newsweek, a photograph of the September 2014 TechCrunch Disrupt Conference in San Francisco shows a room full of attendees. Among the two hundred or so faces in the frame, it is difficult to find women. I count seven. And I wonder how many of these are in leadership positions—statistically, very few, if any.   

There are myriad reasons why women are not moving more rapidly into leadership roles in the business community. Whether or not women are themselves willing and able to “lean in,” external factors often contribute to their difficulty in finding success on the leadership track.

Whether or not women are themselves willing and able to “lean in,” external factors often contribute to their difficulty in finding success on the leadership track.

Those factors include:

UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

Even in firms where well-meaning managers are supportive of women, progress is difficult. That’s because human brains are wired to recognize patterns, and the patterns one typically sees in the business community are those created by men. When men look around in conference rooms that are predominantly male, they don’t perceive a problem—they see a norm. They don’t recognize what’s missing.   

Because present-day culture was created by males, it also validates male styles of leadership: linear, analytical, competitive, aggressive, and logical. Women who learn to “speak the language” often do so at great cost, psychologically and physiologically. Rather than try to compete in a game that inherently disadvantages them, many women abandon the corporate track to start their own businesses. Ironically, that abandonment itself is then cited as evidence that women “can’t cut it.”

Related: The Feminine Woman's Guide to Office Confidence

LACK OF FLEXIBILITY

Job descriptions and expectations often put women at a disadvantage. Success tracks are often built around life choices and values that advantage men: systems that don’t recognize or reward women’s strengths and contributions, or which trap women in stereotypical roles. Women who cannot adjust are overlooked, bypassed, or are seen as problems. The system, again because it was created by males, perpetuates male dominance. Gendered career paths and gendered work promote male leadership.

SCARCITY OF MENTORS

Because there are few females at the top of the leadership pyramid, women have difficulty locating female role models and mentors who can guide them. A recent report on women entrepreneurs by the Kauffman Foundation cited “a lack of available advisers” as the chief challenge faced by female entrepreneurs. The departure of women from a biased work environment, as noted above, contributes to the draining of vital human resources—advisers and mentors—for women.

The departure of women from a biased work environment contributes to the draining of vital human resources—advisers and mentors—for women.

Related: Female Leadership: Take the Time to Teach

INHOSPITABLE AND EXCLUSIONARY CORPORATE CULTURE

Once upon a time, Wall Street epitomized the sexist, frat boy culture of the business world. Now Silicon Valley has taken the mantle, fostering an environment many describe as virulently misogynistic. Accounts of executives joking about “gang bang interviews” are familiar. Revealingly-clothed “code babes” often staff booths at conferences and conventions. Women are excluded from social events with important clients because they “kill the buzz.”

It’s no surprise that this culture has yet to produce a female Gates, Jobs, or Zuckerberg.

LACK OF CONFIDENCE

Is it any wonder then that, in this environment, women suffer self-doubt? Women don’t step up or lean in because they don’t see themselves as leaders—they judge themselves too harshly and often disqualify themselves prematurely for lacking what they view as the necessary qualifications (which are formulated by male culture).

More than men, women also hold onto limiting beliefs ruminating about past “failures” and allowing those to define them. Beyond their own self-doubt, women tend to lack confidence in their organization’s commitment to support upward trajectory. In other words, they lack confidence in their chances of success in their current environment, even if they have confidence in their own qualifications.

THINGS ARE CHANGING 

Most challenges to women’s access to leadership are institutional and cultural, and therefore, not easily addressed and dismantled. They are the “air” of the corporate environment: invisible, pervasive, and pernicious.

Most challenges to women’s access to leadership are institutional and cultural, and therefore, not easily addressed and dismantled. 

But there is hope.

In a recent Pew Research Center study of American women and leadership, findings indicated that, unlike in the past, “family responsibilities”—the stereotype of women belonging at home—no longer ranks high as a reason cited for the dearth of women in leadership roles. Only about one in five—men and women—now hold that opinion.

Also low on the response chart are old notions that women aren’t tough enough to succeed in business, or that women simply don’t make good managers. These last two categories received only single-digit positive responses.

Instead, the study supports the challenges listed above—that women are held to higher (and perhaps different) standards, and that some firms are simply not inclined to hire and promote women, regardless of their qualifications. Those acknowledgements in themselves are steps toward change.

Then there is the question of perspective. In a classic “glass half-full/half-empty” scenario, one bar graph in the Pew study, titled, “Americans Have Doubts About Women Achieving Equality in Corporate Leadership,” nevertheless reveals that nearly half (44%) of those polled believe that it is “only a matter of time before women hold as many top positions as men.” In fact, men are slightly more inclined to believe in women’s ascendancy than women are! {Click to Tweet}

Not surprisingly, women see wide-ranging benefits to increased female leadership, and there are some signs that a new model of leadership—one valuing and stressing collaboration, empathy, compassion, vulnerability and selflessness—is already gaining ground. As best-selling author Claire Shipman puts it, “Women are . . . less competitive, in a good way. They're consensus builders, conciliators and collaborators, and they employ what is called a transformational leadership style — heavily engaged, motivational, extremely well suited for the emerging, less hierarchical workplace.”

Women see wide-ranging benefits to increased female leadership, and there are some signs that a new model of leadership—one valuing and stressing collaboration, empathy, compassion, vulnerability and selflessness—is already gaining ground. 

In other words, women are perfectly poised to be—and well on their way to becoming—the next great leaders. {Click to Tweet}

Related: Why Women Should Be the Boss