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Where Are Women Leaders?

March 31, 2017

Women in leadership is currently a hot topic, especially after the 2016 presidential race that included the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major political party, Hillary Clinton. But women are not new to leadership in politics. Fun Fact: The first woman to run for United States President was Victoria Claflin Woodhull in 1872, who ran against Ulysses S. Grant. Although it may appear that women are becoming more active and present in leadership roles, that is grossly untrue.

Where Are Women Leaders

According to the 2016 Fortune 500 list, women hold only 4.2% of CEO positions in America's 500 largest companies. But how about this:  in 1995, there were none!

The question becomes:  Why aren't more women in corporate leadership roles?

The 2015 Pew Research Center survey on women and leadership revealed most Americans find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation.  Many said women are stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders.

Researchers have explored the essential ingredients of leadership and found no gender differences in leadership effectiveness (Hyde, 2014). A recent study by Select International reveals similar findings. An executive level assessment was used in a manufacturing company to assess individuals for leadership potential.  Findings included:

  • Women represented a small percentage of the sample - 15%

  • There were minimal differences in the average ratings between men and women on a variety of leadership competencies

  • Slight differences appeared in the leadership and interpersonal realm:

    • Males were rated higher in "Leading"

    • Females were rated higher in "Strategizing"

  • 70% of the females in the sample were identified as having high leadership potential

Though it's only one study, it's apparent that the leadership potential is abundant. So, what are the biggest barriers for women? In a research article by AAUW.org, some possible contributors to this gender leadership gap include:

  • Persistent Sex Discrimination. They explain that bias against women in the workplace remains - even if it's subtle, it's still illegal discrimination. As recently as 2015, companies have been seen to unguardedly state a gener preference for some positions, such as "requires filling in the responsibility of a receptionist, so female candidates are preferred" (Crockett, 2015). In a recent 2015 EEOC case, an employer conceded that a female executive was paid half as much as male executives with comparable sales, even though sales numbers were the key determinant of salary (King v. Acosta).

  • Caregiving and Women's 'Choices.' Balancing work and family responsibilities is clearly one of the obstacles women face when seeking leadership positions. They're more likely than their male counterparts to work irregularly and/or temporarily leave the workforce. Still, many who leave do return within a year or less.

  • Lack of Effective Networks and Mentors. One of the most important contributors that organizations can effectively tackle is the access to influential networks for women, which is critical to moving up the leadership hierarchy.

  • Stereotypes and Bias. According to AAUW's study, people are less likely to openly admit to negative stereotypes and biases today than in the past, but state that they remain powerful in this quieter form. Implicit bias occurs when a person consciously rejects stereotypes but still unconsciously makes evaluations based on them.

What can be done?

Know the laws. Tackling what contributes to inequitable representation of women should be the first plan of action. First and foremost, organizations need to be fully aware of prohibited employment policies and practices. As a reminder "Under the laws enforced by EEOC, it is illegal to discriminate against someone (applicant or employee) because of that person's race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information."

Adopt Diversity Goals and Strategies. Diversity and inclusion has been identified as a top trend/priority for 2016 (SIOP, Forbes). This is focusing on getting more diversity in the workplace. Things to consider: Training people at all levels on topics like unconscious bias, similarity bias, structural bias, and self-rate bias. Integrating diversity and inclusion strategies in recruitment, performance management, leadership assessment, and training.

This may sound like a daunting task, but there are reasons why it shouldn't be overlooked. There is current research showing many positive outcomes when companies adopt diversity goals:

  • McKinsey's research shows that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers and ethnically-diverse companies are 35% more likely to do the same.

  • Catalyst research shows that companies with more women on the board statistically outperform their peers over a long period.

  • Deloitte Australia research shows that inclusive teams outperform their peers by 80% in team-based assessments.

The movement to get more women into leadership roles is just starting, coalitions are beginning. Although it appears to be a long road to greater diversity, any forward movement will help speed up the process. It's been 144 years since the first female candidate ran for president. We have the evidence that women have leadership potential and holding that diversity and inclusion are still a top priority for the coming years. It will be interesting to see if there is any female representation in the 2020 presidential election!

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Jessica Petor Jessica Petor is a Research Analyst located at PSI's Pittsburgh office. She holds a Master of Science degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology from Northern Kentucky University.