According to a recent poll of over 1800 American adults by Pew Research Centre, most Americans now find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, with many saying they’re stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders. While that’s a sign of progress, what’s most interesting is instead of blaming that old chestnut of ‘work/life balance issues’, the highest proportion (about four-in-ten Americans) point to a double standard for women seeking to climb to the highest levels of either politics or business, where they have to do more than their male counterparts to prove themselves. Recognition of this double standard is a big shift and a much needed turning point. It’s perhaps not surprising about two-thirds (65%) of women say their gender faces at least some discrimination in society today, compared with 48% of men who believe women face some discrimination, but it’s promising that nearly half of men agree. Historically, it’s been convenient to blame women’s reproductive choices for the lack of progress. This research suggests that if both women and men understand the system is biased enables us to make inroads into this issue.
According to a recent poll on Women in Leadership of over 1800 American adults by Pew Research Centre most Americans now find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, with many saying they’re stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders. More specifically, a disproportionate number of Americans think that women in business are more likely to be honest and ethical, mentor junior staff and provide fair pay and benefits, than their male counterparts. On the other hand, men were seen to be stronger on negotiating profitable deals and risk-taking.
Nearly 40% of Americans say having more women in top leadership positions in business and government would do a lot to improve the quality of life for all women. An additional 40% of women say this would have at least some positive impact on all women’s lives. For their part, men are less convinced that female leadership has such wide-ranging benefits. Only 19% of men say having more women in top leadership positions would do a lot to improve all women’s lives, while 43% say this would improve women’s lives somewhat.
We regularly hear from our corporate clients that not enough women apply for senior roles. Many organisations attribute this to fallacious factors – lack of ambition or not being ’tough enough’ for a senior position. In our experience working with global companies, we find too frequently, it is not the women, but the organisation’s policy and work culture that disadvantages women.
This gender bias is very subtle and often missed by the women themselves. While women may indeed blame their own ‘lack of ambition’ or disinterest in reaching the top, unconscious bias still creates these rationales. Unconscious bias by it’s very nature is unconscious, and so does not require an intent to exclude. Nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context — akin to “something in the water” — in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential. For example, let’s look at how this plays out in the recruitment of senior roles. In an article on Second Generation Bias in the Harvard Business Review, one male leader described how historical hiring processes encouraged one type of candidate; over-confident men to apply. His organisation had to make a concerted effort to review the job criteria for leadership roles – looking for bias:
One male leader said to me, ” We write the job descriptions- the list of capabilities- for our ideal candidates. We know that the men will nominate themselves even if they don’t meet all the requirements; the women would hold back. Now we look for the capabilities that are needed in the role, not some unrealistic ideal. We have hired more women in these roles, and our quality has not suffered in the least.”
The hidden costs of gender bias is high. High turnover, difficulty attracting women to the company, and a lack of diversity to match that of customers are just some of the disadvantages. If women are not applying to your top jobs, begin by assessing your hiring processes, starting with job descriptions, rather than blaming women themselves for a ‘lack of ambition’.
Aggressive. Aloof. A real bitch. There are a litany of derogatory words we use to characterise female leaders. Men are given more ‘wiggle room’ in terms of the behaviours we expect or sanction, but women have less latitude. As discussed in the recent Huffington blog post: This is how we talk about female leaders (Hint: It’s not pretty) , Nic Subtirelu, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL at Georgia State University assessed the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) 450 million words of text from magazines, newspapers, fiction and academic text from the last two decades for gender difference in language.
Dismally, women were labelled ’pushy’ twice as frequently as men despite the fact men are mentioned nearly twice as frequently as women overall in the COCA. Subtirelu found men were more likely to be describe as “condescending”; a term which can only be applied to those who are or believe they are in power. On the other hand, pushy is comparable to being obnoxiously forward or self-assertive. The article details what we see everyday: Hillary Clinton being described as shrill, aloof, ruthless, icy, angry and frumpy; Angela Merkel as ruthless and frumpy.
Jill Abramson was described as pushy, stubborn, brusque and condescending by the media following her untimely removal as the first female executive editor of The New York Times. Her high profile removal was a mirror to that of Amanda Bennett, who was described similarly several years before when editor of the high profile Philadelphia Inquirer. She was ousted after just 3 years in 2006. In a recent opinion piece “Pushed off the Glass Cliff” in the Washington Post, she noted the only thing that had changed in the 7 years between Abramson and her own departure was: ‘Women now feel not only resentful, but also finally, entitled. Entitled to lead…to be paid equally. Entitled to be flawed… and to be fired, but also entitled to point out the obvious fact: Men with even more spectacular and difficult flaws than ours get not only longer tenures but also softer and more dignified landings.’
Incredibly, despite his own evidence, Subtirelu stated in his blog ‘Linguistic Pulse’, he was ‘suspicious of the possibility that these descriptions had an element of gender bias to them’. Why do the media insist on using condescending and gender biased words to describe inspiring, strong females? And how low do we have to sink if the researchers themselves can’t see the biased writing on the wall?
Many of Female Breadwinner’s clients, despite working to improve their gender diversity, find maternity leave to be a big challenge. Interestingly, the progressive men, often those whose wives work as well, notice that working mothers are some of the most conscientious employees. They don’t have time to waste and are incredibly efficient. A coaching client recently explained: ‘I was considered high-potential before I had children, but I’m actually more productive since I’ve had my second son. I just don’t have the hours to be anything else. The irony is that I know I’m no longer considered a rising star!’
Forward thinking employers recognise it’s well worth the effort to retain a long time employee now on maternity leave. Josephine Fairley, Co-founder of the rapidly growing Green and Blacks, points out the advantages in the misleadingly entitled Telegraph article Maternity leave is a nightmare for employers. Fairley explained: “…In my experience, female employees make up for lost time in the wee small hours to get a job done, if that’s what it takes (and without being asked). I had two fantastic single mothers working for me, Cluny and Gail, when I was running Green & Black’s – and my absolute understanding of the tugs on their time turned out to be repaid hundredfold in loyalty, over the years. I’d like to propose to any employer of mothers out there that a shift in attitude might very well deliver the same willingness and fealty.”
If taken up by men more equitably, we anticipate shared parental leave from April 2015 will make young women less suspect as potential employees.
Even in this day and age; ambitious women sometimes ask me: “I just got married. Do you think this will reduce my chances of securing a new promotion?” I empathise with the question; when I became engaged 10 years ago, I didn’t wear my ring except at the weekends. My employer knew my boyfriend was in the UK and it would have forced questions as to where we were planning to live that I wasn’t ready to answer.
Many working women feel that being married changes the way their employers perceive them; as if they are about to leave to have children or become ‘less committed’ now that there perhaps is another breadwinner on hand.
Clearly, this isn’t a question I’m alone in answering. A recent survey in the UK on reasons why women remove their wedding rings showed 35% of women regularly remove their wedding or engagement rings at work, believing appearing single increases their chances of getting a job or being promoted. A further third take their rings off when going for a job interview.
The Telegraph commented on the survey, “The research suggests many women worry that employers or prospective employers interpret a wedding ring as ‘about to take time out and start a family’, making her an “unattractive hire”. Men who wear wedding rings, on the other hand, do not face the same fears.” In fact, we often view married men as the most stable and hardest working. After all ‘they have a family to provide for’ – a 21st century reality we overlook for women.
Have you ever hidden or been tempted to hide an impending engagement or marriage by removing a ring?