The pandemic has been especially hard on women as many have had to opt out or reduce hours for the purposes of caregiving—caring for children, elders or friends. Some women have lost their jobs because of the shifts in the labor market. But women have also found success in the workforce and have seen progress as well—from demonstrating effective leadership to positively influencing their organizations.
Data provide a clear window on the state of women in leadership—including both gains and losses. The insights are sobering, but also enlightening. Our opportunity is to build resilience: By understanding reality and making sense of it, we can become more resilient, solve problems and innovate toward greater happiness, fulfillment and achievement.
Women Are Strong Leaders
Historically, there has been debate about women’s performance in leadership. As frustrating as the very existence of that debate may be, it has also catalyzed research which reinforces the effective contributions women make.
Effectiveness. A sweeping meta-analysis from Florida International University examined 99 data sets from academic research sources—including journal articles, white papers, books and dissertations. The study finds women and men do not differ in their perceived effectiveness as leaders. Assessing feedback on leaders and the extent to which they are judged competent and capable, there is no statistical differences between men and women.
Leadership Behaviors. In addition, women are performing well in multiple aspects of leadership. A new study of 423 companies across the US and Canada by McKinsey & Company and Leanin.org finds women are better than men at providing emotional support to employees (19% of men compared with 31% of women) and checking in on the wellbeing of employees (54% compared with 61%). In addition, they are better at helping employees navigate work-life challenges (24% of men compared with 29% of women) and taking action to prevent or manage employee burnout (16% compared with 21%). Women also spend more time contributing to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts (7% of men compared with 11% of women).
Preferences for Women. In addition, people welcome having women as their leaders. A recent study from ResumeLab finds 38% of people prefer to work for a female boss compared with 26% who prefer to work for a man. In addition, 35% of respondents have no preference. When asked whether they are better at leadership, 38% believe women outperform men while 35% believe men are better in leadership roles.
The Bias Is Real
Despite women’s strong leadership, bias still exists.
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Qualification and Decision Making. A study of 1,529 respondents by the Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf in Germany finds people report women are less qualified for leadership than their male counterparts based on perceptions of how women think and process issues. In the ResumeLab study, 45% of respondents believe women are more likely to follow their emotions when making a decision, while men are more likely to use logical thinking when making decisions.
The Likability Bias. Studies published in The Economic Journal show there is a likeability bias when it comes to women. If women aren’t perceived as likable, people will demonstrate less cooperation and less support for the women’s efforts. The same dynamic is not evident with men. Those who are not perceived as likable do not pay a price in terms of the cooperation or support they receive.
Trust through Crisis. On the other hand, women tend to benefit from a trust advantage. According to research at Lehigh University and Queen’s University Belfast, when people are in a crisis situation, they are more likely to trust women to take care of them and lead them to a safe outcome. While this may seem like good news, it is still limiting for women because it speaks to a perception of qualification based on gender alone, not skills, competence or experience.
The biases have consequences for everyone and, in particular, women.
Higher Standards. Women are perceived to be held to a higher standard than men. For example, a study of 600 women business owners by Groupon finds they believe they are held to a more rigorous standard when accessing capital or seeking mentors. Relatedly, the ResumeLab study finds 55% of respondents believe women in managerial positions are held to higher performance standards than men.
Media Portrayals. Portrayals of women in the media make a difference as well, because they tend to reinforce stereotypes. Fully 59% of ResumeLab survey participants believe women are under-represented as managers and 52% see them as over-represented in support functions.
Under-Representation in Leadership. All of this has real implications for women. The pipeline for women in leadership has many leaks where women fall out of the progression toward higher-level roles. The McKinsey/LeanIn study finds 48% of entry-level positions, but only 24% of C-suite are occupied by women. In fact, women lose ground at every step of the hierarchical pipeline, but they lose the most ground at the opportunity to enter management.
So how can we—women and all genders—create the conditions for reduced bias and accelerated progress for women?
First, we can manage our own biases and language. We can be aware of our own biases and work to reduce them. One aspect of bias is linguistic determinism which describes the fact that language matters: How we refer to people and situations affects how we perceive them. A study in the Sex Roles journal finds we use different language to describe men and women and this can be limiting. Recognize the terms you use to describe women and other genders, and focus on discussions about skills, competencies and capabilities that are gender neutral.
Second, women can bring their own talents forward. Women will do well to recognize their strengths and demonstrate their capabilities every day, rather than shying away from situations because of bias. When women bring their best, they contribute to their organizations and communities. We all have an instinct to matter and applying talents for the benefit of family, communities and organizations is good for all kinds of wellbeing.
Third, women can care for themselves. Women who work hard and also set boundaries and take time away tend to have greater levels of wellbeing and mental health. Find work which aligns with your interests as much as possible, attend to your physical health and invest time in creating and sustaining meaningful relationships.
Fourth we can use our influence to shape the conditions for women’s success and advancement. Sociologically speaking, the primary way we learn is through watching, listening and experiencing others around us. This means each woman’s choices and behaviors have a powerful effect on those around her. Women can help other women and all genders, supporting them and contributing to cultures and systems where there is a high level of respect, value and inclusion for all kinds of differences. We can also contribute to the systemic and structural elements that foster success for women—creating policies and programs for all phases of life and employment from attraction, hiring and promotion to caregiving and flexible work—empowering and enabling women for career growth and advancement.
The news is good about women’s capability, resilience and effectiveness. The bad news is women still face tremendous headwinds in terms of biases. But women can find their strength, express their voice and apply their talents. They can also shape the conditions for others, supporting and influencing the systems which make the world welcoming for women’s contributions. The state of women’s progress in the workplace and in leadership isn’t just a women’s issue. It is an issue for all of us—so we can build communities where we can tap into the very best from each of us.