The glass ceiling, it appears, has not been broken. Women still fill less than 15% of executive leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies and make up just 3.6% of CEO’s.
According to Robin Ely, Prof of Business Administration at Harvard, they have identified second-generation forms of subtle gender bias that have impeded women’s progress. And to make it worse, much of it is unintentional practices and patterns that favour men and create structural career blocks for women. Prof. Ely’s paper is the first to understand these biases and propose a new approach to developing women leaders.
As most traditional leadership development for women is “add women and stir”; basically delivering women what is delivered to men or “fix that woman – to be as good as a man”, it ignores the basic systemic gender bias in organisations that are often deeply ingrained in workplace culture and society at large. For example, women are ascribed to be friendly, emotional and unselfish, attributes that clash with larger societal beliefs about what a leader must be such as assertive, self-confident and entrepreneurial – often seen as traditional masculine traits. Women who do display those behaviours can be seen as abrasive instead of assertive, arrogant instead of self-confident and self-promoting instead of entrepreneurial. These perceptions hold women back. And the lack of role models to succeed also presents an additional stumbling block. Additional biases include failure to consider women’s lives, hinderance to their ability to develop powerful networks and creating excessive performance pressure.
What can women do to overcome this?
- Create a strong leadership identity – see yourself as a leader and be seen as a leader. The best process is through a series of action and feedback that affirms action and elevates confidence
- Develop an elevated sense of purpose – Leaders are most effective when their personal values align with the work they are doing and connect to something that is larger than themselves. Re-direct participants away from a single-minded focus on career advancement and managing other people’s perceptions of them as leaders and toward identifying larger leadership purposes and actions they need to undertake.
- Create a workplace environment to support women’s identity. Create a safe environment and peer networks that support participants in understanding and shaping who they are and who they can become.
- Organisations must take responsibility for giving equal opportunities to their employees. Examine their assumptions they make about who is an “ideal worker” how they judge commitment and what they look for in leaders. “If work cultures enabled both men and women to have full work and personal lives, it might help to level the playing field” Deborah Kolb Simmons School of Management.
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