March 20, 2017

Women’s Underrepresentation in Leadership: Why it Occurs and 3 Ways to Ameliorate It

Women’s Underrepresentation in Leadership

In speaking with a friend, I mentioned that much work still needs to be done about the lack of female leadership in U.S. organizations. Astonished, he said, “I didn’t think that was a problem anymore!”

He was right to be astonished. A reasonable person would expect a more equitable distribution of organizational power between women and men – after all, it is the 21st century. However, a glance at the statistics indicates that this ideal arrangement still does not exist.

Women constitute roughly half (48%) of the civilian employed population in the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013). Women receive 57% of Bachelor degrees, 60% of Master’s degrees and 51% of Doctoral degrees conferred (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). By these numbers, it’s evident that women are as well-educated and as well-represented in the U.S. workforce as men. Assuming there were no gender differences in workplace performance, one would expect to see women as well-represented in leadership positions as men. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Assessing organizational gender parity at the board level, women occupy only 17% of director’s seats of Fortune 500 companies (Egan, 2015). Of Fortune 500 firms, 28% have just one female director, while 4.6% have no female directors at all (Fairchild, 2015).

Regrettably, the statistics do not improve for women in the C-suite. Only 24 of the Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO (Egan, 2015). The ratio of female-led to male-led companies is 1 to 20. Moreover, women hold only 14% of the top five leadership positions (including CEO, CFO, COO and other key positions) at the companies in the Standard and Poor 500 (Egan, 2015) and 27% of Fortune 500 companies have no female executive officers at all (Catalyst, 2013).

This trend is echoed both globally and locally. Just 8% of companies worldwide with revenues of at least $500 million have a female CEO (Peck, 2015). In my home state, 92 (23%) of California’s 400 largest public companies have no women among their highest-paid executives and board members (Townsend, 2015).

Relative to women’s level of education and representation in the workforce, there is a lack of female leaders. Why is there such a significant, negative discrepancy in women’s representation in leadership positions? Research on the matter suggests that leader gender matters.  

Why there are so few female leaders

People’s stereotypes play a role in the lack of women occupying leadership positions. Stereotypes may be thought of as a quick and dirty way of categorizing a person or summarizing a situation. Our past experiences and beliefs inform our expectations for how a leader should behave (Haller & Hogg, 2014). The prototypical, or ideal, leader stereotype tends to be defined by attributes that are primarily masculine (Eagly & Karau, 2002). A female leader represents a misfit between gender role attributes (the way a woman is expected to behave, which is feminine or ‘communal’) and leader role attributes (the way a leader is expected to behave, which is masculine or ‘agentic’). Strongly held stereotypes about gender then feed into prejudicial behavior. When members of a stereotyped group occupy a role that is at odds with their gender stereotype, that discrepancy negatively impacts our perceptions of that person (Eagly & Karau, 2002). In particular, typical “feminine” behavior is not in line with the way in which people think a leader should behave. Without even realizing it, we may psychologically categorize a woman as being unsuitable to lead (Haller & Hogg, 2014).

Simply put, a female leader may be evaluated less favorably than a man simply because the leader-like behavior is better aligned with the male gender role than with female gender role expectations (Eagly et al., 2002). Prejudice results in a woman being placed at a disadvantage not merited by her conduct (Allport, 1954). Therefore, it makes sense that leader gender matters.

Given what research has shown about the role that stereotypes and prejudice play in a woman’s ascension into leadership, what can executive leaders do to foster opportunities for female leadership within their organizations? The answer is quite a lot! Following are three empirically supported approaches for encouraging female leadership.

Three Ways to Increase the Number of Female Leaders

  1. First, buy into the idea that women leaders beget more women leaders. Research has shown that the ratio of females to males in an organization affects bias (Eagly, et al., 1995). Ratings for female leaders suffer to the extent that the people doing the rating are male; as the proportion of female raters increases, female leaders’ ratings also tend to increase (Eagly, et al., 1995). This finding may be because when women only represent a small minority in an organization, that triggers stereotypes (Eagly & Karau, 2002) and the female may be seen as a token, rather than someone who earned her place at the table. Organizations more successfully retain younger, managerial women when there are more women in senior management positions (O’Neill & O’Reilly, 2010). Further, a woman is more likely to be promoted if her current job level and the level above her both consist of at least 50% females (Eagly & Karau, 2002).
  1. Second, executive leadership can take measures to familiarize organizational members with potential or new female leaders. When people are more familiar with an individual, they are less likely to rely on stereotypical beliefs about that individual. So, if organizational members are exposed to and become familiar with a well-qualified female leader, they are more likely to assess that leader based on her merit as opposed to stereotypical gender role expectations. This familiarity reduces the likelihood that the leader will be capriciously penalized for the perceived gender role violations that tend to occur when a woman holds a leadership position.
  1. Lastly, executive leaders can employ a three-step approach to reframe organizational members’ leader stereotypes through a process known as Social Identity Framing (Seyranian, 2014). The idea behind this approach is that individuals who currently hold leadership positions have the ability to effectuate social change through their communications. As such, the steps in this approach are executed with communications from existing leaders to organizational members.
  • Step one: Social Identity Unfreezing. This step involves having an existing leader formally call out the problem of the lack of females in leadership and establish a need for change. The leader’s communication could include a description of the psychological reasons why women are sometimes excluded from leadership roles so that organizational members are aware of peoples’ tendency to gauge leader effectiveness, to some extent, based on gender. Done properly, this step will galvanize organizational members to “unfreeze” attachments to current stereotypes related to the leader role (Seyranian, 2014).
  • Step two: Social Identity Moving. During this step, the leader conveys a compelling vision of a new direction while simultaneously reframing the group’s ideas about leaders such that they are in line with this vision (Seyranian, 2014). Such a vision would involve a new leader archetype that includes women. As part of this process, the leader would negate pre-existing policies that perpetuate the old leader archetype that excluded women. For example, hiring and advancement policies and procedures could be reviewed to ensure that decisions are based solely on merit. One illustration of the power of conscious impartiality in hiring and advancement decisions is the use of blind auditions by orchestras and symphonies. This practice is credited for increasing the probability that a female musician would be hired or promoted by 50% (Goldin & Rouse, 1997). If blind interviews and performance appraisals are not feasible, a simpler stopgap is the use of 360° reviews to help ensure that no one is placed at an unfair disadvantage because of another individual’s personal biases. Also, the organization could make certain that developmental resources are offered equally to qualified women and men.
  • Step three: Social Identity Freezing. This last step involves equipping followers with motivation to commit to the changes involved with the leader’s vision and to take necessary action in executing those changes (Seyranian, 2014). The leader accomplishes this through reinforcing the vision with positive affirmations of the group’s new identity as an organization that includes female leaders. This step ultimately results in the solidification or “freezing” of organizational members’ new conceptions about leaders (Seyranian, 2014). In this manner, an organizational leader can endorse a new, more diverse and inclusive leader archetype.

In conclusion, the lack of women in leadership positions is problematic. A well-qualified woman may be denied the opportunity for advancement not because she lacks merit, but simply because of her gender. The reasons for this phenomenon tend to be deeply rooted in our psychological processes. What is apparent in the preceding three solutions to this problem is that increasing the number of female leaders involves reliance upon existing leaders who are allies to the cause. Therefore, it is incumbent upon executive leaders to be aware of this issue and take steps to counter it.

About the Author

Leslie Trainor, M.B.A., is the manager of the LeAD Research Lab and a Ph.D. student in Organizational Behavior at Claremont Graduate University. Her research interests are women in leadership and toxic leadership. Current research projects include an empirical study on the relationship between leader gender, follower gender and organizational culture as a context for toxic leadership; and a theory manuscript on coaching for new leaders. Leslie has been involved in private and public sector business for over 14 years and is an independent contractor working with the County of Riverside Economic Development Agency.

Related Research

Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109(3), 573–598.

Egan, M. (2015). Still Missing: Female Business Leaders. CNN Money. Retrieved from  http://money.cnn.com/2015/03/24/investing/female-ceo-pipeline-leadership/

Fairchild, C. (2015). The 23 Fortune 500 companies with all-male boards. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/01/16/fortune-500-companies-with-all-male-boards/ 

Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (1997). Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of “blind” auditions on female musicians. The National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved at www.nber.org.

Haller, J. J., & Hogg, M. A. (2014). All power to our great leader: Political leadership under uncertainty. In J-W. van Prooijen & P. A. M. van Lange (Eds.), Power, politics, and paranoia: Why people are suspicious of their leaders (pp. 130-149). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Peck, E. (2015). Do You Realize How Few Women CEOs Exist? These Executives Don’t. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/13/weber-shandwick-female-ceo_n_7771608.html

Seyranian, V. (2014). Social identity framing communication strategies for mobilizing social change. The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 468–486.

Townsend, T. (2015). Survey Shocker: 1 in 4 California Corporations Have No Women Executives. Inc.com. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/tess-townsend/survey-shocker-1-in-4-california-corporations-have-no-women-executives.html

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