Women continue to be under-represented in leadership positions: Only 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and 8 percent of top leadership positions, are held by women. And yet, the emerging trend toward a more transformational leadership model is rewriting the book on what’s required to lead effectively. Women bring unique strengths that can propel our careers and enhance our success in top leadership roles—if we manage to avoid certain pitfalls. What will it take to apply women’s leadership advantage for organizational success? The reality: a legacy of obstacles.
The path to gender-balanced leadership is littered with pitfalls, none of which are likely to disappear soon. Here are several that I’ve identified through my research on women and leadership and my work with female executives:
Mismatch between gender stereotypes and leader stereotypes.
The assertive, authoritative, and dominant behaviors that people link with leadership tend not to be viewed as typical or attractive in women. Women appear to have a need to be liked, rendering us less comfortable with the isolation and challenges a lonely leadership position affords. Everyone is uncomfortable when women “do leadership” in traditional ways.
Reality of the glass ceiling.
Whether it stems from women’s lack of confidence or the same old arguments, such as the impact of motherhood and domestic roles, sexism is alive and well in organizational culture. Men’s predominance in positions of organizational power, and the greater breadth of their social and professional networks, give men greater access to information and support. Women in traditionally male-dominated settings often have difficulty breaking into the “old boys” loop of advice and professional development opportunities.
Difficulty of work/life balance in leadership.
Expectations to work excessive hours are a major reason that women avoid the leadership track. Research tells us women are still the main performer of housework and childcare, with the result that men have more time for their jobs. Women’s willingness to demonstrate less career commitment makes us seem less worthy of mentoring, training, and challenging assignments. This reduces opportunities for career development, leading to attrition, which in turn reinforces stereotypes and thus creates a self-perpetuating cycle of gender inequality.
Lack of mentors.
Mentoring provides career guidance and psychological support, but women are having more difficulty finding effective mentor relationships. As a result, women have been slower to display the skills needed for leadership. All mentoring is not created equal; research indicates that too frequently, women’s mentors have less organizational clout. A female on the leadership track needs mentors who will not only provide feedback and advice, but will actually use their influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee. Without this kind of sponsorship, women are not only less likely than men to be suggested for top roles, but may be more reluctant to aspire to them.
These four factors represent the most noticeable obstacles to gender balance in leadership. Stay connected with us for Part 2 of “Do Women Have a Leadership Advantage?”