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Women’s Arduous Climb Up the Corporate Ladder

This post is the fifth in a series that provides deeper context for the findings of the 2020 Status of Women and Girls in Minnesota report, a research collaboration between the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy. Although women’s representation among Minnesota’s corporate executives has risen in recent years, at the current rate it would take decades to reach gender parity. Here, Wharton School postdoctoral fellow Tianna Barnes explores why the gender gap remains so persistent in corporate leadership—and what individuals, organizations, and policymakers can do to close it.

The election of Vice President Kamala Harris marked a momentous victory for women in leadership. On the shoulders of many women before her, she declared in her victory speech that while she may be the first woman to hold this office, “I won’t be the last.”

As her words guide us toward a more equitable future, they also necessitate a reflection on where we are today. In the U.S., only 45 percent of legal associates, 40 percent of all surgeons, 32 percent of full professors, and 24 percent of Congress members are women. Lawyers, physicians, faculty, and politicians are not only socially laudable career roles, but they are also overwhelmingly male. This “boys’ club” is also blaringly evident within corporate America, where women hold only about 27 percent of manager positions and 19 percent of senior leadership roles.

Seemingly liberal metropolitan areas, like the Twin Cities, are not immune to this trend. As of 2019, Minnesota was home to 16 Fortune 500 headquarters, only three of which counted a woman as their CEO. This is less than the national average. At the current rate, it will take 52 years to reach gender parity in Minnesota’s corporate leadership. Why?

Role Incongruity: Not All Stereotypes Have Shifted

Gender stereotypes largely explain inequalities within leadership. While many stereotypes have shifted over time, many also remain static, including the idea that women are overly sensitive and less ambitious. Gender is a social construct loaded with norms, expectations, and prescribed traits. The gendered attitudes and behaviors that are considered stereotypically male or female inform these stereotypes and translate into challenges for aspiring women leaders.

Although research shows that women are just as effective as leaders, a disconnect between the gender stereotypes of women and the presumptive characteristics of leaders still exists. Simply put, people aren’t yet entirely sold on the idea of women leading in many arenas. A notion within organizational science dubbed the theory of role congruity helps to explain this. Even as social norms around gender shift, there remains a tight prejudice toward female leaders based on the “incongruity” between the stereotypes of women and the image of a leader. Prejudice against women as leaders thus remains the largest obstacle, resulting in the maintenance of the glass ceiling and motherhood penalties for women seeking leadership roles.

Gender Bias Undermines Performance

These barriers not only hurt women but limit organizational performance. Companies with female representation in top leadership are 50 percent more likely to outperform their peers. Women leaders are more likely to mentor others and address social inequalities. Organizational functioning is simply not at its highest potential when women are unfairly excluded from leadership.

Succumbing to gender stereotypes ultimately has three key consequences: biased leader selection, biased leader evaluation, and biased leader burden. Firstly, stereotypes muddy the difference between who is more likely to lead and who is more likely to lead effectively. Given that men more often emerge as leaders, they are also frequently selected over more qualified women, a detriment to the organization. Moreover, stereotypes not only influence how leaders are selected, but how they are evaluated. Gender bias negatively affects women leader performance evaluations and ultimately their promotional opportunities. Finally, once a woman acquires a leadership position, she is often held up as the paragon of women leaders. Her performance within the position directly influences future leadership opportunities for other women–an added (and unpaid) responsibility to manage.

The Intersections of Industry, Gender, and Race

There are nuances to the relationship between women and ascension to leadership. First, industry type matters. A 2015 public report found that men and women are actually considered equally good business leaders—depending on the type of profession. Fifty-four percent of respondents suggested that men would be better for a sports team leadership role, while women are more favored to lead a major hospital or retail chain, for example. Non-profit work shows similar trends. Industries that are deemed more communal, such as education, social services, or healthcare, provide women with a greater opportunity to hold positions of power. Nonetheless, women within these roles are still underpaid compared to men and can face a significant increase in “care burden” or burnout.

Additionally, clear contingencies exist across race. White women and women within the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) demographic groups endure distinct challenges in their attainment of leadership roles. Black women leaders, for example, are disproportionally more likely to experience micro-aggressions, are more likely to be criticized for their mistakes, and have less exposure to resources and networking opportunities.

Currently, only about 4 percent of C-suites include any women of color. While recent times have shown minority women emerging to new heights of leadership, the need for reform across the intersections of race and gender within organizations is still vastly unaddressed.

#LeanInTogether: What Now?

Solutions to the issues surrounding women and leadership are not particularly underdeveloped but simply underused. Change is possible at the individual, corporate, and federal level.

Individually, women aspiring to leadership roles can take a more self-reflective and proactive approach. Adopting counter-gender stereotypical behaviors or a transformational leadership style have been found useful in garnering higher performance evaluations and signaling leadership potential. Additionally, white women in corporate spaces should assume a more inclusive stance toward BIPOC women and their pursuit of leadership roles via decentering (identifying that race and gender are distinct entities), amplifying (creating conversations and spaces for minority women), and providing (as you gain access to new resources and networks, sharing those with other women of color).

At the corporate level, organizations should prioritize eliminating biases in leadership selection and promotion processes. The inclusion of 360-degree feedback, blind selection, or after action reviews are several approaches to reduce gender bias in selection and promotion. Moreover, companies should be active in their collaboration with and involvement in social movements (e.g. #MeToo) that address misconduct against women in the workplace and social scientists with expertise around women’s well-being in organizations. Finally, the need for gender equity in pay is still an ongoing battle. Corporate leaders should continue work around minimizing the gap.

Lastly, representation and allyship are key for policy-level change. History shows that federal legislation can make a significant difference in protecting the rights of women in the workplace. Lawyers and politicians have significant agency in advancing more legislative change, from equal pay to parental leave. The 2018 election of four Democratic women to the U.S. House of Representatives known as “The Squad” who have been outspoken around issues of injustice highlight this potential. Their visible presence within media and Congress works for the benefit of women in their attainment of social and organizational influence.

Initiatives to minimize gender inequality within leadership are making headway, but we still have long way to go. We can close the gender gap in leadership—but only if we’re willing to acknowledge what needs to change.

Tianna Barnes, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the management department at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. This post was originally published by the Gender Policy Report on March 10, 2021.

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