We Still Don’t Have Enough Women in Leadership. What’s the Haps?
We don’t have enough women in early, middle, or executive management. Why? The ugly truth roots so deep in American culture. Our culture is sexist. It will take meaningful, hard, and collective work to remedy the lack of women in leadership.
In the ’90s, Gwen Stefani cheekily called out sexism in Just a Girl — Oh, I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite — So don’t let me have any rights. My girl crew comes together to talk about the audacity and ludicrousy of men to mansplain, interrupt, and count us out. We dream up plans to stop the madness by being louder together. But it’s honestly not funny. Those little moments stem from real and often unrealized sexism.
Sexism shows itself in data and our experiences. In March 2020, 14% of US startups had a female CEO (1). While the number of women running Fortune 500 companies hit a new high, make no mistake, it’s low at 37 women (2). A lack of women in leadership becomes a vicious cycle. Not only do we have fewer women leaders as mentors, but folks may falsely interpret the data as women being less qualified CEOs. Data without context is unhelpful. The context is in our everyday.
A few months ago, my daughter’s pre-k teacher apologized to me during pick-up. The current curriculum centered on artists. My precocious child, Henley, asked, “Are there any female artists?” At that moment, her teacher realized the lessons included only male artists. The school added female artists to the mix, but not before my budding feminist presented herself as an artist known for rainbows at Show and Tell.
The experience led to positive conversation + change; however, if not for Henley’s curiosity, what would have been? Easy — The seeds of pattern-matching. Throughout life, we use patterns and stereotypes to make sense of the world. Our brains crave meaning, which we establish with patterns. These constructs come to us through pop-culture, our parents, religion, and more. Exposure to artists crafts a pattern in our brains about what makes an artist. When presented with a female artist, we seek to match that with the pattern. If only exposed to male artists, we’ll reject a female artist.
You may recognize this as sexism on the page, but when it’s happening, it doesn’t feel like sexism; it doesn’t feel like malintent or hatred toward women. We act in sexist ways regardless of gender because our brain doesn’t like what it doesn’t recognize or can’t evaluate.
Extend the concept to leadership. If white, male, older, stern is the leadership pattern you experience, when met with a woman of color, young, upbeat, it breaks your pattern. These thoughts unchecked can lead to a lack of diversity in hiring or promotions, stagnant companies, and disrespectful cultures.
Ask anyone, why aren’t there more women in leadership? You may hear things like: women can’t put in the same number of hours, women are emotional, women are caretakers first, women don’t have mentors, women don’t want equality, women aren’t ruthless enough.
In women leaders, people search for both patterns of femininity and patterns of leadership. Known as a tightrope experience, women find themselves expected to be soft + firm | deferential + assertive | mothers first + work first. We don’t crave authentic leaders; we crave familiar ones.
Our identities influence the way we engage with the world and the way the world engages with us.
As meaning-making machines, we love consistency. We often trust, mentor, and like others based on superficial commonalities, like a shared love of football. If white men lead the way, that means white men are most likely to decide where to give power. Women may be evaluated against many patterns, including gender and race. If one doesn't fit the brain’s Rolodex of patterns, an individual may be labeled as inconsistent, unlikable, or untrustworthy.
The cure is a throwback- channel your childlike wonder, your inner Henley. When curiosity is triggered, we’re less likely to stereotype or pattern-match and less likely to try to defend or prove our beliefs. Curiosity pushes us to focus on the person or idea in front of us, no matter how foreign.
A foreign experience for me is what it’s like to be a man. Through curiosity, I can interrogate my experience as a woman and ponder what it’s like to be a man. For example, the privilege of opting-out of these conversations. Stereotypes of white men also exist, but they are often viewed as natural-born leaders — a privilege that is mostly invisible, as privilege often is to those who have it (3). Men aren’t incentivized to change the status quo.
Neither are women that make it to leadership. While there’s no cap on white men in leadership, there’s often a quota or perceived cap on other aspects of diversity. The competitive dynamic puts the people that would most support each other at odds. It can feel good to be the woman to make it to the boy’s club. But, one woman doesn’t represent all women. We aren’t all alike in our experience, perspective, talents, and passions.
My lived experiences inspire my passions. I chose an HR career to influence inclusion, pay equity, culture, hiring, and more. I care about these things because of my experiences, but they also ensure that I carry more emotional labor than my male peers for care + femininity at work. It reinforces a gender stereotype.
Achieving the VP title didn’t automatically make me respected, trusted, or even liked. There’s always a group that balks when I speak about empathy + self-awareness. Yet, a male counterpart receives praise after “holding his ground” in a meeting. Why? Because we’re used to male leaders using their voice to silence others and calling it passion. We’re not used to women leaders asking us to reflect inward and question the impact we have on others.
So, the pattern — stern | male | executive — cycles on. Since our brain loves that mean-making, it also unconsciously imitates others. If we witnessed aggressive managers, we might imitate an aggressive manager when we become a manager. Even if we consciously don’t appreciate aggression. It’s why some people feel every boss is the same boss. Introducing a female or feminine executive disrupts this pattern. It challenges assumptions on who a leader is and makes companies more innovative + interesting.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix, no one-and-done diversity program, no PR statement that garners more women in leadership. It takes self-awareness and intentionality in everything you do as a leader and as a company.
Sexism isn’t a new problem. However, the pandemic illuminates one of the reasons women start behind the leadership race — caretaking. I bear the brunt of caretaking, simply because everyone expects me to, especially my husband’s company. It means: playing into the work/family narrative, agonizing over whether to take a leave of absence, and feeling mediocre or awful at everything. While we have this peek into our team’s lives, take the time to mull on the ways sexism manifests.
Here’s a mini-list of ways to address sexism at work.
- Right now, flexibility feels like an illusion. The norms of business still support 9-to-5 visibility while women navigate children + careers in the same space. Don’t just lean on practices like asynchronous communication; make it a standard for men to take time for their families. As a mother, it’s socially acceptable for me to run out of work to pick up a sick kid. Imagine the effect if dads had the same opportunity?
- Be curious about your impact on others and their impact on you. Be a keen observer of yourself. Get to know your values, how you reward others, and the assets you bring to work. Understanding your authentic contributions makes it’s easier to appreciate different forms of leaders.
- It’s dangerous to run around with unchecked bias. Get to know your biases. Give ‘em names. When Sexist Sal shows up - interrogate him and learn why he’s there. How can you avoid his negative influence?
- Hire, mentor, and promote potential. Women often work in a role before being promoted. This follows women from job to job. Hiring managers exacerbate the issue by evaluating candidates against artificial barriers like whether they’ve held a title in the past. Women are perpetually chasing promotions to honor work they’ve already done.
- Develop a way to be accountable to yourself, your team, your company. At Square Root, we analyze total rewards across all demographics + listen for inconsistencies in the way managers speak about folks. Do we hear tightrope expectations (nice, but too nice) or different bars for excellence? There are talented people in every demographic. Look for ‘em!
My eyes are on Biden. He chose a female VP, Kamala Harris. A man helped break this glass ceiling. To invite more women into leadership, men need to take their roles as glass breakers seriously. That includes reverence for feminine traits and topics like diversity, equity, mentorship, and inclusion.
Women bring empathy, balance, collaboration, divergent thinking, open-mindedness alongside resiliency, and a lifetime of challenging assumptions.