Is it because women lack ambition that there are so few women in senior leadership positions? Or is because the male-dominated environment is self-sustaining and difficult to break into?
I think there is truth in both these arguments and the issue is a complex mix of factors.
Lack of ambition
When women look at the way the senior roles are structured and the culture of senior leadership they often do not want to be part of it. The style doesn’t suit them and they would not find it fulfilling to operate in this way, so why would they aspire to the role? Their ambition is to lead in a way that is authentic to them.
There is a lack of female role models in top leadership positions – it is not that there aren’t any, but that they may be lacking in the immediate environment and that those in the public domain are treated differently by the media than their male counterparts. Generally the male leaders are accepted including their faults, but female leaders are vilified for their faults. Indeed it seems that the media look to criticise women for things that have little to do with their leadership, such as their taste in shoes (e.g. Theresa May, MP). The media treatment of leaders fuels perceived inequality, which indicates to women that they will have to fight harder and smarter to achieve their ambitions as prevailing thinking is against them.
This is an example of the prevalent stereotyping, which is a wider issue. Stereotyping puts people into boxes, so for example, many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and roles are not considered suitable for females, so girls in schools are not encouraged to take these subjects or to consider careers in these areas. From an early age, females are being conditioned as to what is appropriate for them. It is here that change needs to take place in order to encourage females to fulfil their potential.
It may be nature, it may be nurture, but the majority of females have a different approach to the majority of males, when it comes to what is important in making decisions. Myers-Briggs research shows that 75% of females report a Feeling preference (decide by weighing relative values and merits of the issues, personal and group values-based), whereas 57% males report a Thinking preference (decide through logical analysis, objective and impersonal). This makes for a clash in the important area of decision-making, which is a critical skill in leadership positions.
Research into job applications showed that women think that the applicant should have the competencies, skills and experience that are being asked for and if they are missing any aspect they won’t apply as they assume their application will not be considered. Whereas men take what they have as the starting point and assume they can learn the rest on the job. Job advertisers can help by making it clear where there requirement is firm and where they are seeking potential. Women need to be more bold in pursuing their ambition.
Male-dominated leadership culture
Culture is ‘the way we do things around here’ and when looking for someone to fill a leadership position, the organisation will naturally look for someone who will fit in, who is ‘like us’. That means that when someone presents, who is different, the odds are stacked against them. The most obvious difference is gender, but differences in style and approach may also be rejected. It takes considerable discipline not to let such cultural factors influence the decision. This is where HR needs to take a strong role in facilitating openness to diversity.
I think this is one of the nubs of the matter, as a woman joins the leadership team, the remaining team members have to open up to the challenge of doing things differently and to allow the female leader to continue to pursue the style that has made her so successful that the organisation wanted to hire her. Admittedly any new joiner to a team represents a challenge to the way it works, but I believe the perception of difference increases the incumbents’ anxiety about challenge. It takes courage on the part of the incumbents as well as on the part of the female leader to open up and look for the best of both ‘worlds’.
There is much more could be said on this topic, so I think I will follow up this article with more on what it take to change the culture. I am interested in your views, so please post comments below.
Stepping up to leadership
So what does it take for women to fulfill her ambition to lead?
- Passion, commitment and energy around your subject
- Believe in yourself and your potential
- Be authentic and know your purpose (you will be a role model for others)
- Challenge the status quo and work with others to achieve change
Seek out mentor(s) to support you in your personal growth and career ambitions; you may look to multiple people as all you are looking for does not reside in one role model. Having that outside perspective from someone who is on your side is very helpful in thinking through your ambition and career options and in preparing you for leadership.
Please contact me to discuss any of the points raised here.