Women in Leadership: Why it's Time to Rethink the System

Why we should try to fix the system rather than encouraging women to conform to it.

by Jemima Jordan, March 8, 2018
Women in Leadership

It’s an interesting time to be a woman and indeed, I expect it is also an interesting time to be a man. Since Harvey Weinstein was ousted in October 2017 after being accused by 93 women of sexual assault, it feels like a week hasn’t gone by without a new story of sexual assault or sexism in some form or another. From Hollywood to charity to politics, the epidemic seems to exist in every sector and with every new scandal, it is becoming harder to believe that our society’s principle of gender equality is anything more than a smokescreen, behind which lies a murky world of sexual misconduct in all its forms.

It is against this backdrop that I write an article about women in leadership. In 2015, the statistics show that globally, women were paid on average, only 77% of what men were paid and that women occupy only 12% of leadership roles. And its hard to see a change coming soon when, according to McKinsey & Co, not only are women are less likely to be promoted to manager positions, but the trend gains momentum incrementally as they climb the ladder.

One would have thought that the gender gap in leadership positions was conspicuous but amazingly, a recent study by Comparably, showed that 60% of men and 49% of women said that they felt that there were enough women in leadership positions. This second study is disappointing, but I wonder if it is unsurprising when it seems that both genders actually have an unconscious bias towards the male gender and the qualities it tends to embody, in the workplace. Harvard’s global online research study, which included over 200,000 participants, showed that 76% of people (men and women) are gender-biased and tend to think of men as better suited for careers and women as better suited as homemakers. I guess this is no surprise when one considers that women are being asked to enter into and navigate a system that was made by men. As Janet Crawford, creator of ‘The Surprising Neuroscience of Gender Inequity Workshop’ writes:

Business culture favours the masculine perspective, not because of an intention to marginalize women, but because men designed it. As a result, we recognize and reward masculine leadership, but the contributions of feminine leadership often remain invisible.

Maybe now is a good time to put to paper what the male traits tend to be. The stronger, more rational traits generally associated with the masculine: Strong, assertive, goal-focused, competitive, rational, whereas female traits tend to be more nurturing: collaborative, communicative, nurturing, intuitive, patient etc.

The deeply unfortunate thing here is how unconstructive this approach is. There are many different studies to choose from when making this point, but for the purposes of brevity, Harvard Business Review’s survey of 7280 leaders showed that at every level, women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts. And then when one considers that women drive 70-80% of consumer purchases but 91% of women feel misunderstood by marketeers (AD Age), one would have thought that businesses would be jumping to recruit women so they can get a piece of the 18 Trillion dollar female economy.

So how can we work together to fix this bias? Well sadly, I think there is all too much of a tendency for advising women to repress their feminine traits in a bid to fit better in a man’s world… Even as I researched this article, there were wonderful pointers such as ‘don’t cry at work’ and ‘don’t sleep with your boss’, of course laying the responsibility on the woman. As Crawford says:

The primary emphasis is usually on helping women fit into the system as opposed to changing it.

For me, we cannot succeed in closing the gap on the gender disparity until we realise that this is not an issue that concerns only women. Just as the statistics above prove, this is not just a moral issue, this is a business issue and thus, the onus and interest in trying to fix it needs to lie with all of us. As male and female leaders, employees and members of a functioning society, the conscious effort should be made to understand the incredible financial and emotional value of having the feminine influence in the workplace and to call out when female traits are undermined. Where possible, positive feminine traits need to be acknowledged and awarded in equal weight to those more traditional masculine traits that have dominated our workplaces for too long.

If the #metoo campaign has taught us anything, it is that our society is a long way from being free from sexism and gender inequality. Let’s use the momentum we have gained from this shocking but encouraging time to fix both the conscious and the unconscious biases we have.