As an executive coach who is also a woman, I pay attention to the state of women in leadership positions.  As a trained scientist, I focus on what is demonstrated and what is known, not on opinions or supposition.  And it is through this lens that I approach understanding gender diversity.

Women are under-represented in leadership positions, and this is an ongoing trend. In 2018, at Standard & Poor 500 companies women represented 44.7% of all employees but only 36.9% of all first and mid-level managers, 26.5% of all executive and senior-level managers, 21.2% of all board members, 11% of top earners, and 5% of CEOs.  There was a slight improvement in 2019 as the number of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies increased to 33, or 6.6%.

This lack of female leaders is often attributed to individual factors and choices, such as the confidence or desire to pursue new work opportunities, a choice of work-life balance, or even ability.  However, one study of 2600 CEOs found that women and men had similar abilities for interpersonal, analytical, and managerial skills – yet women were much less likely to become chief executives.  And this incredible disparity between the percentage of women in the workforce and the number of women at the highest levels of leadership suggests other factors are at play.

Research suggests that the primary cause of women’s under-representation in leadership roles is “subtle barriers from cultural assumptions and organizational structures.” Herminia Ibarra of the INSEAD Business School refers to this as “second-generation” bias, to distinguish it from an obvious, deliberate exclusion of women. These biases tend to manifest around a traditional view of leadership that values masculine qualities and behaviors. One study showed that when people are asked to draw a picture of an “effective leader,” both men and women almost always draw men.  When women do not fit this image, they are seen as less effective.  In one experiment, a fictional leader named Eric who offered new ideas was seen as a natural leader while someone named Erica who offered the same ideas was not.

Or, women are punished for not being “feminine enough” or for displaying stereotypically male traits – a “double-bind” that does not apply to men. IBM and Catalyst found that women leaders are perceived as competent or likable, but rarely both.  The IE Business School in Madrid found that competent women must be seen as warm to be perceived as confident and influential at work. Competent men are seen as confident and influential whether they are warm or not.  And male and female leaders are liked equally when behaving participatively; but when acting authoritatively, women leaders are disliked much more than men.

A lack of women in leadership positions means that there are also fewer female role models and women-based support networks within organizational structures.  Herminia Ibarra reports, “Multiple studies show that women are less embedded in networks that offer opportunities to gather vital information and garner support,” and that “men are more likely to have mentors who help them get promoted.”  She also states, “When people are less embedded, they are also less aware of opportunities for stretch assignments and promotions, and their supervisors may be in the dark about their ambitions.”

While this lack of gender diversity in leadership is dispiriting, the hopeful news is that the business case for diversity is getting more traction.  This is moving in parallel with evidence-based approaches for increasing the number of women in leadership positions.  I will cover both of these topics in my next blog post.

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