Women in Leadership Positions - Simple Truths
Recently I was asked why I think there are more males than females in leadership positions in today’s business world. Then I was asked what I thought I could do to contribute to the “improvement” of the situation. Unfortunately, as a leadership professional, I know the truth behind the reasons and find these to be sexist questions. Undoubtedly, there are many in this world that might have the same questions, but I stress, if you ask a sexist question, you will undoubtedly get a sexist answer.
These questions are by all means a setup. If you were to answer these questions directly, more than likely, someone would tear you apart for stating the facts in a direct manner. The truth is that the answers to these questions are multifaceted and require a double sided approach. There is a positive side and a not so positive side, depending on how you would like to look at it, and depending on what gender you are reviewing the information from. However, the “not so positive” side is actually more scientific in nature and has more to do with our preferences as a species, rather than some kind of societal road block. So let us tone down the offensive posture for a second and embrace intellectual perspectives.
Let us first explore some basic ideas surrounding leadership in regard to gender. It is an interesting paradigm for sure, yet easily explained. According to numerous studies, individuals with greater physical stature are more likely to be perceived as capable and competent by followers, and more likely to be respected and feared by opponents.
This could present a problem for many women. Essentially what it boils down to is that men are usually stronger, taller, heavier, etc. Woman, tend to carry a more nurturing physique. Based on this simple scientific fact, it would be difficult to imagine what would contribute to the altering of the underlying physical and psychological factors behind why people choose the leaders they do.
The perception of ability in handling stress or threats appears to be key and ingrained in our DNA. Can we purposefully override that and place women in leadership roles? Of course! But perhaps the natural desire for male leadership derives out of some kind of survival mechanism. Or perhaps it is something ever simpler. Massive amounts of research indicate that females tend to underrate their own performance. In other words, they hold themselves back for any number of reasons. Peggy Drexler of Forbes Women, who reviews similar data, backs this up by suggesting that all women need is a shot of confidence and ambition. Perhaps if women were more “alpha” in the workplace, more leadership headline positions would be taken by females.
This may be coming across as sexist, but we need to understand that in more than fifty articles searched, and numerous definitions reviewed, I can find no mention of a single physical attribute (such as gender) to be necessary in regard to leadership ability. Obviously, it must be something else. Still, we need to also understand that throughout history, males are more often than not, the choice for leadership roles. This is demonstrated time and time again. Only five of the 209 Egyptian pharaohs were female, only four of the 187 Roman emperors were female, and there were only 10 empresses in the 26 centuries of Imperial Japan (Murray, 2012). Recent studies show that only 7% of government leaders worldwide in an executive position were female and in none of the major national business indices did female chief executive officers (CEOs) exceed 6% (Canada’s Financial Post 500).
Can women make great leaders? Of course they can. Are there women leaders? Absolutely, and this has been the case throughout history even when it was frowned upon. The number of woman in headline leadership roles is also increasing over time, albeit slowly. Do women want to be leaders? That is a whole different question and one that I cannot really answer. However, as suggested before by many, it is not for the lack of opportunity that more women are not in leadership roles. Still, the question about female leadership is misleading. This paradigm/question is skewed because the word “improve” becomes an issue when we look at the bigger picture.
The fact of the matter is that there are more females in the workforce than there are males. More females actually get into mid-level management than males do. According to Prudential Financial, the majority of American women are now the breadwinners in their households. More women than men under 30 years old are graduating from college, and women are beginning to earn more than their male counterparts (Brittany, 2013). I would say things are “improving” all the time. In fact, one could easily make the argument that women are taking over the workplace.
The point is that there is obviously more than meets the eye, and the idea of “improving” the situation is not clearly defined. It appears that women are very dominant in the workplace. Still, we must ask ourselves whether “equality” would be the improvement. If so, would that require an increase in the number of women in leadership, and a decline in the number of women in the workforce? Would it require a leveling of the compensation or graduation rates? These are probably not good ideas to the entire female gender.
My point is that “ideal” is relative and we should not continue to subscribe to sexist or racial ideology to the point where we cannot see the forest for the trees. There have been massive improvements and things are getting better all the time because more and more, people are embracing the differences between us.
If someone can handle their business better than the next person, they deserve the job – regardless of whether it is a leadership position or not and regardless of whether it is a woman or not. For my daughter’s sake, I hope that more people begin to subscribe to this idea in the future.
Murray, G. (2012, Sept 30). When do we prefer male over female leaders? Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/caveman-politics/201209/when-do-we-prefer-male-over-female-leaders
Brittany, M. (2013, June 03). Are women destined to overtake men in the workforce? Retrieved from http://finance.townhall.com/columnists/morganbrittany/2013/06/03/are-women-destined-to-overtake-men-in-the-workforce-n1611532/page/full
Drexler, P. (2013, July 15). Women need more than confidence to succeed, they need ambition. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/peggydrexler/2013/07/15/women-need-more-than-confidence-to-succeed-they-need-ambition/