Women Make Awesome Leaders. So Why Aren’t More Actually Leading?

Traditions die hard. Women make great leaders, yet even in 2021, few hold top positions.

Humans tend to hold on to traditions because change is difficult. It’s easier to stay course on the same road than to take the one less traveled by.

And nowhere is that more visible than women in leadership roles.

“She was powerful. Not because she wasn’t scared, but because she went on so strongly, despite the fear.”
-Atticus

Despite oftentimes scoring higher than their male counterparts when it comes to leadership skills, the chief executive office largely remains male-dominated territory. In 2019, a paltry 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and a meager 2% of S&P CEOS were women.

Women have been much more visible in the political arena, but that success hasn’t carried through to senior leadership positions in companies. That’s where tradition, biases and prejudices too often bolt the door to women candidates.

Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg summed up those hindrances best:

As a country and as a world, we are not comfortable with women in leadership roles. Little girls get called bossy all the time – a word that’s almost never used for boys – and that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce.

Scoring High, Yet Missing the Leadership Mark…Why?

Plenty of research reveals that unconscious bias wields a major role in hiring and promoting women, which is ultimately reflected at the top levels within organizations.

These biases fly in the face of the high competencies, capabilities and aptitudes that women possess. Recent studies in Harvard Business Review revealed that women in leadership positions were viewed as being just as effective as men.

In their studies, women were rated as excelling in all these key areas of leadership:

  • taking initiative
  • undertaking self-development
  • performing with resilience
  • demonstrating high honesty and integrity

Women were believed to be much more effective in over 80% of the competencies that measure leadership traits.

Perpetual biases against women are common: Bold may be mistaken as overbearing. Tenacious can be unfairly judged as nagging. Even professional can be misinterpreted as icy and even “unfeminine.” Too often, those worn-out stereotypes and old prejudices get in the way – and when that happens, no one wins.

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”
– Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand)

Leadership Confidence or Competence?

A lack of confidence in themselves that may be one factor that holds many women back. Many of us can relate to that sneaky inner saboteur that tells us we’re not good enough, or we don’t have the right experience, education, or professional network… Data since 2016 revealed that women under the age of 25 don’t view themselves with confidence. Writers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman offer that those in that age group are probably much more competent than they believe themselves to be – that is the exact opposite from their male counterparts, who tend to be overconfident given their level of competence.

According to HBR data, as women age, their belief in themselves increases:

  • Rating confidence for the age group 25 to over 60 years of age, men gained only 8.5 percentile points, while women gained a whopping 29 percentile points.

HBR notes that different studies have led to different conclusions when it comes to confidence in women. In other words, building confidence is important – but it’s only one factor and certainly not an end-all, be-all solution.

  • Studies do agree, however, that women tend to shy away from applying for a job they don’t feel qualified for, while a man is inclined to forge ahead. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes that society in general is unable to distinguish between confidence and competence.

“We are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women…the only advantage that men have over women is the fact that manifestations of hubris – often masked as charisma or charm – are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.”

One Step Forward…One Back

Since the 2019 HBR statistics, there was a slight increase of women holding the title of CEO during the last year – which was an extremely challenging and tumultuous year for businesses. Writing in bizwomen, Anne Stych reported that in early 2020, women held 6.7% of CEO positions and by the end of the year, claimed 8% of CEO positions.

Those statistics were marred somewhat when JCPenney released the news that CEO Jill Soltau would step down and be replaced by Stanley Shashoua. This brings light to the “glass cliff” phenomenon – when women are hired during extremely challenging times in an industry with no certainty of success. Soltau’s replacement gives credence to a study by researchers Alison Cook and Christy Glass from Utah State, who found that after reviewing Fortune 500 companies over more than a decade, white women and men and women of color are more likely than white men to be given the top nod as CEO at struggling firms.

Hiring Based on Leadership Skills – or Style?

Writing in Forbes earlier this year, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, succinctly summed up why there aren’t more women leaders in charge:

“We live in a sham meritocracy, where we pretend to pick the best person for each job, while simply picking those we prefer: and when the jobs pay well, they are still overwhelming male.”

Chamorro-Premuzic notes hiring isn’t based on skills, but on style: we choose confidence over competence, charisma over humility, narcissism over integrity.

He dug deeper into just how well women do better than men:

  • men score higher than women in dark personality traits (aggression, psychopathy, and narcissism)
  • women generally perform better than men in humility, self-control, social skills, moral sensitivity, among others

Chamorro-Premuzic boldly asks what would happen if less time was spent telling women to be more confident, and more time choosing leaders based on actual competence.

“Equality isn’t exceptional women getting ahead, It is incompetent men falling behind.”
-Sarah Green Carmichael, Bloomberg

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