Why Women are overlooked in leadership positions

There are three popular explanations for the clear under-representation of women in management, namely: (1) they are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass-ceiling: an invisible career barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power. Conservatives and chauvinists tend to endorse the first; liberals and feminists prefer the third; and those somewhere in the middle are usually drawn to the second. But what if they all missed the big picture?

In an ideal world, leaders would follow science-based practices and prioritize engaging with and inspiring their employees, and providing them with a sense of meaning and purpose.Instead, we continue to see that the average performance of leaders and managers is pretty disappointing. More bosses are contributing to burnout, anxiety, boredom, and productivity losses than driving top team or organizational performance.

So long as we continue to associate leadership with masculine features, we can expect female leaders to be evaluated more negatively even when their performance is higher than that of their male counterparts, and even when those who evaluate them are women. For instance, a recent study on social sensing, in which male and female leaders were tagged with sociometric badges that monitored everything they did and said for weeks, showed that despite non-existing behavioral or performance differences between men and women, men were promoted to leadership roles much more frequently than women were.

While overall gender differences in leadership effectiveness are generally non-existent, meta-analytic studies show that men tend to perform better when the focus is on managing tasks, while women tend to perform better when the focus is on managing people, which includes attending to people’s attitudes, values, and motivation. (These differences are predominantly attributable to cultural constructs, not biological differences.) Since AI is expected to automate most of the task-oriented elements of leadership, particularly if they involve data-driven decisions, one would expect there will be an even bigger premium for leaders with strong people-skills and higher levels of EQ. That is because people will always crave human attention, empathy, and validation, which machines will not replicate anytime soon.

Indeed, as much as we understand the theoretical importance of leadership as a key driver of organizational, business, and societal success, we are still living in a world where most leaders are not evaluated objectively, and where discussions around the performance of leaders tend to be diluted to a matter of preferences, politics, or ideology. Subjective evaluations rule, and perceptions trump reality.

Until this is fixed, there is not much benefit in improving our leader selection process. Even if we were using a data-driven system that objectively selected leaders based on their actual potential – paying attention to competence, humility, and integrity rather than confidence, charisma, and narcissism – it wouldn’t do much good if we proceeded to judge the performance of those same leaders via subjective, prejudiced, or biased human opinions. In other words, removing bias at the selection point will fix nothing if there’s still plenty of bias contaminating our performance management systems.

And yet, if our solution is to train women to emulate the behavior of men, by asking them to promote themselves more, take credit for other people’s achievements, blame others for their own mistakes, and focus on their own personal career interests, as opposed to the welfare of their teams or organization, we may end up increasing the representation of women in leadership without increasing the quality of our leaders. In this scenario, women will have to out-male males in order to advance in an inherently flawed system where bad guys (and gals) win. Unless our goal is to make it easier for incompetent women to succeed – much as it is for men – there is little to gain from this approach.

This would also end up harming the career prospects of men who lack “traditional” masculine leadership traits but possess the qualities that could potentially make them into great leaders:being less bold, less reckless, and less self-centered, and more altruistic, ethical, and self-aware.

In sum, the main reason why competent women are less able to emerge as leaders than they ought to be is that our preference for incompetent men is far more acute than it should be: too many leadership roles are given to incompetent men when there are better women – as well as men – who continue to be overlooked.

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7 Comments

  1. Another point in my job I am at right now (retail so it doesn;t really count) but the leads are tired, burned out because they keep cutting hours so they have no employees to do any work. In things like retail though and other places that seems to be the latest thing they are cutting less employees, all probably will eventually be replaced by robots, and more work gets put on the managers. You know why? Corporate gets a bonus when you can run your companies on skeleton crews.

    That is the problem like I said. Corporations are the common problem in all of my experience in things like the work place and other scenarios. 😛 Corporations are winning and getting very rich, making decisions about our lives, freedoms etc and we as a whole every citizen is a victim. Instead of coming together though and revolting the system, we are falling for dumb distractions. They want black people to hate white people and the other way around because it distracts us from the real problems. When in reality, I have no more of an opportunity to succeed or get ahead than say a person of color. They all want us to be quiet sheep who work until the day we die. If we do retire they take that away now too. And don;t question anything.

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  2. Personally, and in my experience though I have seen certain companies be sexist. I don’t think women are as much of the victim as we think we are. Equality is actually getting a lot better. The western world (where I live) though still has some questionable stuff when it comes to racial issues in employment, it is normally best man/woman for the job. I recently went through a scenario at my own job where people called the sexist card qay too quickly when we got switch in lead roles. Turns out they were wrong, because now our store director thinks this extra lead role we have working with us (temporarily, unfortunately) is one of the hardest workers and leads. She is a woman. Turns out our past lead just sucked and had nothing to do with the fact she had a vagina. Which btw I already knew, I just kept quiet on said issues.

    I think we like to make sexism and racism still an issue, but I think the biggest issue in the western world at least is the digusting line between the very poor and the very rich. No actual support for help for those who struggle with serious mental health issues etc. No support for disabled people. Lack of socialism I guess you could say.

    Hilary Clinton was an abomination and not a good fit for president. It had nothing to do with her being a woman. If a woman who is as capable of a man for a role like president or prime minister etc I would be more than happy to vote for them. Trump is a crazed lunatic though too. But that is also not even the issue with elections in the USA. Obama wanted a lot more than he accomplished, but every bill he tried to pass got changed so much and rewritten by other roles in government. Presidents don;t run America, Corporations do. Obama didn;t change all that much because he couldn’t and people thought his health plan was a joke, because it was not his health plan by the time it left office and made vote.

    I guess I feel we have bigger problems than sexism and racism. It really has to do with the deep problems. They are trying to make it seem like it is as simple as sexism or racism though to distract us from the real problems. We all need to be revolting, not just men, women, white people etc.

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    1. Absolutely precise.. the problem Between the Rich and the poor , corporations controlling the government is the real problem facing the world… But remember the source.. corporations… Majority sitting on those boards are men who to some extent don’t really posses the values of compassion and empathy that the real world is so in need of Right now.
      On US elections, I still believe it’s not time yet for a woman candidate to actually beat Trump next year… Irrespective of how old Bernie is, I think he’s the best shot America has in winning against Trump

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  3. It’s frustrating but there are several reasons why women are not in leadership positions, including discrimination and prejudice. Almost all of the pay gap studies undertaken by key industry players, show that women are more likely than men to work part time, they are more likely to drop out in their late 30s and 40s to look after children and dependents and as women grow older, they are less likely to be seen as potential leaders. This probably influences ideas about competent leadership. I’m also sorry to say, that many women do not believe that they can be leaders due to societal views of gender roles and personal upbringing ( I worked hard to get rid of this belief!) but that’s not the sole reason. Society doesn’t support the idea of female leaders. As you say, this doesn’t fit in with our ideas of leadership and in fact, we associate it more with toxic masculinity. Thanks for sharing!

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