Kathleen Brush
Kathleen Brush

Management Consultant – Women in Leadership and Globalization

Women in Leadership

Women in Leadership – Unconscious bias; the silent killer of female promotions 

The workplace can be intimidating for women; workplace policies can be gender neutral, and male executives can sincerely speak of gender equality, but the feel of a man’s world seems baked between the organization’s walls. That’s because it is. In the 19th century an Australian suffragette, Louisa Lawson said, “Men govern the world and the schemes upon which all our institutions are founded show men’s thoughts only.” In the 21st century, this is still the case.

In business, men are still overwhelmingly occupying positions of senior leadership. Globally, women occupy 24% of senior management positions; 12% of board positions; 4% of chair people, and 4.2% of Fortune 500 companies. The latter is up from 2.5% in 1998.  Women have achieved a 1 percent increase in the highest positions of business management in each of the last two decades.

The reason isn’t that our government doesn’t support gender equality. In the United States, we’ve been passing laws to reinforce gender equality (and racial equality) for 150 years. Laws though must be enforced. Why did it take until 1974 or 103 years for the Supreme Court to rule that head and master laws that gave men 100% control over marital property violated an amendment passed in 1871? Maybe the problem was too few women in the legislature. In 1974 women had zero representatives in the Senate and sixteen in the House of Representatives, or less than 4 percent.

In 1963 the equal pay act was passed. At this time women earned 59 percent of men for comparable work. In 2015 it was 83%. So mandating equal pay has resulted in the un-admirable average pace of progress of 0.5% increase per year. This situation is actually a little worse because this includes the past ten years where increases were negligible.  Could it be that the problem is still too few women in positions of legislative leadership? That could be part of it. In 2019 women were representing about 24 percent of US legislative leadership positions. When it comes to government women’s thoughts are slowly trickling in, or are they? Research shows that women frequently discriminate against women.

In 1972 Title IX was passed prohibiting discrimination against women in college. In 1972 women made up 41 percent of college enrollments, now they make up 56 percent. So this appears to be working, or is it? Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Why then are women so poorly represented in senior leadership? Could it be related to the under-representation of women in senior positions of academic leadership? Women are the majority on campus but they occupy only 30% of university board positions, and 26% of university presidents are women.

Or could it be the influence of management writers that are overwhelmingly men? Is it men’s thoughts that are unconsciously being taught by virtue of the source? Research says yes. MBA programs have unintentionally been designed to prepare men for leadership. Is this why women in leadership programs are surfacing? Will these be successful? Not if the underlying problem at the crux of all of this is not addressed.’’

When it comes to selecting someone for a position of progressively superior leadership the qualities that are sought resemble those found in men. This makes sense because these are the same qualities taught in business school and the same ones defined by men who are occupying the bulk of senior leadership positions. They are the same qualities that have historically been defined for effective leaders. When an interview team is evaluating different candidates they may not even know that they are looking for qualities typically found in men. This is the phenomenon called unconscious bias. If they see these qualities in female candidates, they can ascribe negative qualities. He’s assertive, she’s pushy. He’s independent, she’s a loner. He’s compassionate, she’s too soft. He’s a responsible Dad and she’s a distracted Mom. This too is a manifestation of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias prevents women and their organization from maximizing the productivity of their organizations. It is also an increasing source of gender discrimination lawsuits and negative public relations.

 Unconscious bias training is one possible solution, but research shows that this can cause more problems than it solves. Besides, it’s crazy to think that a problem that is rooted in history and perpetuated in society, schools, the workplace and at home is going to go away with one or even a few training sessions. Minimally, any solution has to include training women to navigate and neutralize the unconscious gender bias that is pervasive in the workplace. This training will allow women to first understand that women are part of the problem, and second offer guidance on how to independently overcome the challenges of unconscious bias that keeps them from the executive suite. With critical mass of qualified women in senior leadership, the pervasiveness of unconscious bias will begin exiting society, schools, and the workplace and everyone can reap the numerous benefits of gender equality in leadership – like higher returns in business, less domestic violence, and higher qualities of life.