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.