Women in Leadership - How Can We Close the Gap?

Woman crossing arms

The role of women in the workforce has changed dramatically over the last 40 years. Yet challenges exist for aspiring female leaders, as women are persistently underrepresented in the highest levels of organizations. A study by Catalyst suggests that among the Fortune 500 Executive Officer positions, only 14.6% are held by women. And, rather than continuing to grow, this number has stagnated in recent years. If we believe the obstacles women face are perpetuated by the actions and perceptions of men alone, we are mistaken. The issues surrounding gender equality are far more complex. Our notions of gender roles are often subtle and subconscious – a product of socialization – and are frequently self imposed.

The benefit of diversity in leadership is well documented; diverse perspectives support innovative thinking and creative solutions. As demographics shift and talent becomes increasingly difficult to identify, employers need to understand the challenges facing aspiring women leaders if they hope to improve the representation of women and ultimately support their own long term talent management strategies. However, regardless of their own gender, business leaders are challenged to create an environment that supports the growth and success of emerging women leaders.

Battling Stereotypes. Arguably, the corporate world has become more accepting and supportive of women in leadership roles than generations ago. However, society continues to view the leadership traits of women differently than those of men. Studies, including the “Heidi / Howard” experiment conducted by the Harvard Business School, have demonstrated that assertive women are commonly viewed in a more derogatory way than men. When the story of Heidi Roizen (a successful entrepreneur) was altered to refer to Howard Roizen, participants in the study were more likely to report that Howard came across as a more appealing colleague, while Heidi was seen as “selfish” and “not the person you would like to work for." Decisive, courageous, compelling and determined are all characteristics associated with strong leaders. However, research suggests that women and men are perceived differently when exhibiting these traits - women are viewed less favourably than men. While leading women may earn accolades for the results they are able to achieve, they are less likely to be liked by their peers and their staff than are their male counterparts. The challenges facing leaders are mentally tasking enough without the additional negative perception that is a deterrent for both the next generation of leaders as well as the leaders of today.

A Glass Ceiling on Compensation? Pay disparity between men and women remains despite the increase of women in leadership. A recent study suggested that women still only make 80.9 percent of the salaries earned by their male counterparts. Like many, I had always assumed this must be largely attributed to a societal bias. However, I have had an opportunity to see the negotiation process for numerous employment contracts and it has become apparent to me that women seem far less comfortable asking for more money. I have noticed that women seem more inclined than men to justify increases above their current salary. While a variety of studies have echoed this insight, others have dug deeper. One such study conducted by Linda Babcock, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, suggests that women who negotiate are viewed less positively than men – ultimately women who asked for more where considered “less nice.” Is a woman’s reluctance to negotiate a result of well founded concerns of being viewed in a less than flattering way? Or is it related to the tendency for women to under rate their own performance, and to somehow feel less just in requesting greater compensation? It’s hard to say. But awareness is the first step towards change.

Double Duty. While the opportunities in the workforce have increased for women, the expectations around domestic duties have not decreased to the same extent. Statistically women still shoulder a significantly greater share of the household and childcare responsibilities. Society has come to value and celebrate the idea of ‘Supermom’ who can successfully balance her duties at work and at home. Some have suggested that women are less likely to aspire to senior leadership roles in anticipation of this super human feat.

It's clear that despite the great progress that has been made to improve the representation of female leaders many obstacles remain. While employers increasingly appreciate the value that gender balance at the board and senior leadership tables affords, the recipe for change is less obvious. Employers need to take a more proactive role in fostering a supportive work environment for emerging women leaders: celebrating success, providing mentorship opportunities and offering skills development to build confidence. Organizations which offer flexible work arrangements for women and men alike may find they are better able to maintain a healthy pipeline of future leaders who would have otherwise opted out of the leadership track. Beyond this, men and women at all levels of organizations can benefit from making a personal commitment to consciously challenge their own perceptions about women leaders. We all need to reconsider the way we interpret the behaviours of women in leadership roles, particularly the display of confident and assertive behaviour. The more women are celebrated as leaders, the more emerging women leaders will be inspired to reach for the top tier positions.

Finally, one of the most important things we can do as women is coach and mentor other women. Men have historically done a great job at proactively bringing other men along and today’s female leaders have the opportunity to lead change through their own example – by providing mentorship, guidance and opportunities to support the progression of bright young women aspiring to new heights.

Andrea Forbes-Hurley
Andrea Forbes-Hurley, MBA, CPHR

Instrumental in the completion of hundreds of executive search assignments, Andrea’s commitment to providing strong strategic counsel and building lasting partnerships is evident.