It’s been a long time since I wrote about women in leadership, but today I want to talk about women’s internal barriers and biases. And how they can prevent their access to leadership roles.
Much is said about the number of women in top management positions, and it’s well-known the efforts of many governments and companies to respond with different initiatives to the call for a more gender equal society. Even with the best of the intentions, and here there’s still room for improvement, the final decision about taking a leadership position or not is of women.
And many times, they reject the opportunity. Men, instead, they usually take it. Why?
“The process of becoming a leader involves much more than being put in a leadership role […]. It involves a fundamental identity shift”, Professor Herminia Ibarra says.
Self-identity is the composition of various elements such as personality attributes, knowledge of one’s skills and abilities, set of values, assumptions and biases, and the social identity among others.
Therefore, the difference between how women are seen, and the qualities people tend to associate with leaders plays an important part in their considerations. On the other hand, those women able to overcome the social gender expectations who go a step further need to face people unconscious bias.
Usually, when people are asked to evaluate someone’s work, they will rate higher when the work is ascribed to a man. “In all the studies, women evaluators were as likely as men to downgrade the work ascribed to women”1.
Thus, although women are no longer denied accessing to any position on paper, there is still some gender bias persisting in organizations and society that are actually stoppers. All these experiences shape many women’s internal barriers that work against their willing to access top management positions.
Overcoming the barriers
Helping women to overcome their internal barriers is not only a matter of justice. It’s a need. Companies and countries with more women in leadership positions perform better.
There are many things that can be done, but I want to outline two of them.
First, women need to feel safe when they’re climbing the ladder. Organizational culture and business structures usually respond to old time’s needs, when there were a few women in the workplaces. There is still this idea that leadership and masculinity go together. The ideal leader is strong, independent, and assertive. Image in which the conventional feminine qualities don’t fit. Companies should promote a culture where diversity in leadership is accepted as normal.
Second, women need help to overcome their internal barriers and assumptions. For this matter, a personal development process is needed, so they can rebuild their identities in leadership positions and perceive themselves as suitable for the role.
Role models are a good idea to make this happen, so they can see that other behaviors and standards are possible in the working place.
In a nutshell, for companies to benefit from women’s skills and abilities in top positions is not enough to promote gender equal policies. Women should be willing to take these opportunities. And there are still some internal barriers preventing that. Helping in overcoming these barriers is a collective work.