Our understanding of leadership has evolved from popular trait theories, which purported that leaders were born with some special trait or quality, to far more equitable approaches to leadership (such as the transformational and relational leadership theories). Contrastingly, these theories suggest that effective leaders are role models who inspire and empower others. Today, our thoughts and ideas on what constitutes effective leadership challenge traditional views, whereby age, gender, tenure and credentials formed the basis for a leader’s selection. Yet, even with our progressive understanding of leadership and what makes a leader successful, I find it incredibly sobering that women occupy less than 5% of the CEO positions in all Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies.
While we have made great strides in our understanding of leadership, both formal and informal, this gender leadership gap is a serious indictment. Gender-based stereotypes may actually have much to do with this startlingly small statistic. There are many unique challenges that face women in leadership. Common gender-based stereotypes presume that women leaders are more “motherly,” typically poor problem-solvers that have a difficult time making tough decisions. These stereotypes like all stereotypes are perception-based. The problem with perception is that, in many instances, our perceptions do not originate from outside observations, but rather from our cultural background, upbringing and experiences. While our perceptions have been shaped by our experiences, they also guide our behavior and the choices we make. That being said it is easy to see how these stereotypes can potentially undermine the advancement of women in the workplace, regardless of skill or talent.
Furthermore, we are more likely to acknowledge the experiences that validate our perceptions and stereotypes.
Subsequently, women leaders that do not fit the stereotype may do little to correct these gender-based assumptions. These stereotypes must be transparently discussed with shared accountability and organizational action plans to support a non-biased approach to leadership. These stereotypes have been the source of a host of problems for women in leadership or those desiring to lead. These women are more likely to pressure themselves to over-perform or out-perform their peers, in an effort to be seen as competent and capable. These performance pressures underline other issues like burnout, self-neglect, and poor work-life balance.
In other words, these women are willing to sacrifice being healthy and happy for achievement and recognition. Moreover, women in formal leadership roles often isolate themselves physically, emotionally and relationally, due in part to a fear of being seen or perceived as inadequate or weak. The pressures to keep up appearances and be perceived as bulletproof are completely unrealistic. Unfortunately, isolation, feeling alone and withdrawal are just additional layers of problems associated with gender-based leadership stereotypes. Effective leadership at any level involves building trusting relationships.
It is essential that leaders are able to process information, discuss problems and let off steam in a trusting environment. This requires we have both personal and professional relationships that allow for transparency with shared accountability. The role of mentors, along with continuous leadership development, cannot be overstated. Successful leaders sharing, shaping and supporting the leadership experiences of others would be a tremendous benefit. In many instances, we offer little to no orientation, on-boarding or coaching to people assigned to formal leadership roles within our organizations. This could be a vital step toward building individual and organizational leadership capability, as well as diminishing gender-based stereotypes and associated problems.
Finally, it is precisely those qualities (e.g. nurturing, collaborative, instructional, empowering, persevering and productivity) that characterize countless women, and better enable them to become incredibly successful leaders.