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Women in Leadership: Breaking Gender Barriers at the Office

From a very young age, boys and girls aren’t treated the same. We have a history of setting different behavioral expectations based on gender. Boys are allowed to act one way (rowdy and wild), while girls are supposed to act another (prim and proper). These adolescent stereotypes have had a powerful effect on the adult workforce. They’ve snowballed into preconceived notions that unfairly impact men and women in professional environments, especially when it comes to workplace hierarchies. The fact is, women in leadership are viewed differently than men.

Gender perceptions can create major hurdles for women trying to climb the ladder. Because they have been ingrained at such an early age, many people don’t even realize they have a bias or treat men and women differently at work. It’s important to create awareness around this issue so that women in leadership roles can succeed.women in leadership

Impact on Ambition
Did you know that men will generally apply for a promotion if they meet at least 50% of the qualifications, but women typically only apply if they meet 100% of the qualifications? There are several driving factors behind this:

  1. Men appear to be better at taking risks.
  2. Women tend to overanalyze things and consider various viewpoints prior to making decisions.
  3. Women are often more fearful of failure and letting people down.

When men and women first enter the workforce in their early to mid-20s, they are almost equal in picturing themselves in future leadership roles. However, as they age, more men and fewer women consider themselves worthy of promotions and leadership positions (going from 50 / 50 to about 70 / 30). This is startling news!

False Perceptions
Ambition is not the only thing affected by gender stereotypes. The way in which men and women in leadership roles are perceived has been greatly impacted. Research shows that men can be authoritative and approachable, while women are viewed as one or the other, but rarely both. If a woman is authoritative (competent), she may be perceived as too tough, harsh or unpleasant. Conversely, if she is approachable (likable), she may be perceived as being too nice, lenient or easygoing. It’s important to note that both men and women tend to perceive ambitious women this way. Consider this case study:

A panel consisting of four people (two males and two females) interviewed two job candidates who had the same resume and answered questions in the same way. The only difference was one candidate was male and one was female. The male was ultimately picked for the job – unanimously! The two women on the interview panel admitted that the female candidate was too confident and seemed full of herself when answering the questions, which caused them to select the male.

This begs the question – why do women feel intimidated or threatened by other successful women? Are they hoping some women fail so they can succeed? Whatever the motivation is, female discrimination needs to end.

Promoting Women at Work
Organizations can take a proactive step by investing in diversity training that focuses on bias and stereotypes. This can retrain people to think of women as natural leaders. Mentoring and sponsorship programs are also valuable tools that can help elevate women and break down unfair perceptions. Sponsorships are professional relationships in which a senior leader sponsors the career of a woman (or any other underrepresented talent at the company) and is responsible for making sure her name comes up in important discussions. This can be an effective way to get male leadership excited about a changing work culture and help promote female advancement. In addition to formal programs, company leaders need to take ownership and invest resources to address this issue.

It is 2018. Powerful, successful women shouldn’t make people uneasy. It is time to normalize women in leadership. Identify any unfair bias (even if it’s within yourself) and demand change. Taking a deliberate, proactive stance can be the catalyst your organization needs to break down barriers and help promote women at work.

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