What Women Leaders Really Want: Ignore at Your Peril

But Women Don’t Want Promotion …

I was speaking to a business leader recently about the proportion of women leaders in his company. It was just over a quarter which is in fact slightly above average for the UK where currently 21% of senior roles are held by women (down from 22% in 2015) and 36% of businesses have no women in senior management. He said, in all innocence, that he was not averse to promoting women but that “they want different things.”

We know that greater gender diversity in leadership helps with managing risk, growing revenue and increasing innovation. And the business case is clear – the closer we get to gender parity at board level, the more successful and commercially sustainable our businesses will be.

So why is it, even when leaders recognize the merits of diverse leadership, that this ‘well, what can you do‘ attitude persists?

Unconscious Bias

The chances are that leaders are filtering what they hear from their female employees through the lens of unconscious bias. To assume that women are actively choosing to take a back seat when in reality, if circumstances were different, more of them would be willing to deploy their leadership skills in the service of your business.

According to the Equality Challenge Unit, unconscious bias is ‘a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.’ Therefore, although some blatant prejudice against women surely still exists, most of it is not deliberate.

Consider the famous Princetown University test, in which musicians were allowed to audition behind screens, and which increased the chances of women making it through to the final rounds by an astounding 300%. This demonstrates our human instinct of sticking with people we know: it’s far less risky to recruit someone ‘like us’ than to take a chance on the unknown. When there are so few women in senior positions to start with, it’s no surprise that leaders may ‘unconsciously’ choose to select people like them.

As a result, because men tend to value skills in strategic visioning, commercial focus and personal impact, that’s what they will be looking for as priority leadership strengths. Proficiency around respect and empathy for others, planning and managing activities, and personal responsibility – where women tend to excel – are often unconsciously disregarded. Consequently the culture at the top canlean towards the aggressive with a focus on thinking on your feet and a need to fire questions at one another to achieve rigour. There is less space for the softer, more inclusive style of leadership that many women prefer and which is definitely needed as part of the mix for commercial sustainability. As outlined in an Aspire report ‘The Great Female Corporate Quit’, women’s ‘natural, collaborative approach – often labelled as being too soft – is still out of line with stereotypical associations of leader behaviour,‘ It’s not surprising that many women think twice about joining the board.

Unconscious bias can also lead to a whole range of assumptions as to why women are not coming forward for leadership positions. Take the childcare issue, for example. Just because children are important to them, does not mean that their careers are not. As mentioned in the Aspire study, the top two reasons for women staying in corporate jobs are the chance to make a bigger difference and the chance to do something they love, and it is the lack of these aspects, not anxieties about child care, that will dissuade them from staying put or seeking promotion within a given organisation.  According to extensive research by ManpowerGroup, Millennial women (more than 50% of the female working population and growing) want flexibility and more focus on outcomes that allow them greater control over how and when they get work done, and a Harvard Business School study found that even for professional women currently out of the workforce caring for children, the vast majority leave their jobs as a last resort, ‘they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement.’ Sadly, despite the fact that men and women have largely similar career priorities, the assumption that women value career less, and therefore are not interested in promotion, persists.

Even though we all have unconscious bias – that’s the whole point, we can’t help it because it is generated from years of conditioning  – the good news is that if we are aware of it, we can do something about it. I know from taking the Harvard Business School Project Implicit Test, for example, that when I see or hear the word ‘professor,’ an image of a man will materialize. I don’t believe on a conscious level that only men can achieve the lofty heights of academic excellence, so I can therefore check my thinking accordingly.

Questions to take you further

  • What does your unconscious bias look like?
  • If you are a leader scratching your head as to why more women are not coming forward for leadership positions, what unhelpful assumptions might you be making?
  • If you are a woman frustrated by any such mostly unintentional assumptions, how might you use dialogue to challenge the situation?

Find out more about the work Clare McNamara does with leaders and their teams on influence and authenticity.

© Move Ahead Global 2016






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