Fortune 500 companies with women positioned on their boards yield a stronger return on equity than those with fewer women. These companies consistently maintain at least a 26% performance lead than their competitors in the same market.
“Since women in the US influence more than 80% of buying decisions, it stands to reason that there should be a relative distribution of women leaders in those organizations”, says Dr. Patricia Anderson of Authentic Transformational Leadership.
Women in leadership makes economic sense. Conceptually, this is valid, however, there exists a gap between conceptualization and the realization that women lead only 4% of Fortune 500 companies and hold only 16% of corporate board seats. An examination into the causes and effects that are limiting or reducing the number of women in leadership positions is warranted.
Internal and External Barriers
Substantial barriers to women leading are both implicit and explicit in nature. These obstacles are present in academia in general, and in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. For instance, researchers cite “male-dominated networks, intimidation and harassment” as detractors to women pursuing leadership positions. Developing women leaders, on the other hand, is a step in the right direction.
Dr. Patricia Anderson noted that “educating women on leadership practices, challenges, and providing viable support will help to ameliorate some of the challenges that are prohibitive to their interest and pursuit of leadership positions”.
Recruitment efforts for women are not as robust as the efforts to attain and retain their male counterparts. Additionally, the perception of female leaders by both male and female, overall, is that women are less competent, and in a male-dominated leadership culture, fewer women at the top indicates less support for those aspiring to those positions. Sexual harassment is also a deterring factor. Perception and reality both serve to dissuade women; they play out a less than desirable scenario mentally and then decide not to pursue these positions. An uphill battle is what they expect, and some choose to go with the flow rather than muddy the waters. Men, on the other hand, may view a woman’s presence in leadership as a threat, and employers view women, because of childbirth and child-rearing, as being less productive and costlier to the company.
Men in Leadership Positions
Despite research evidence to the contrary, men still hold most leadership positions. In the areas of decision making, sociologists cite women as being conditioned to be more empathetic, consistent, and sensitive to others’ perspectives in decision making. Why, then, do men hold most of the leadership positions? Cultural standards, gender socialization, as well as perception, play vital roles in how men and women are treated in the workplace, and subsequently frame their ascendancy through the leadership ranks. Since the primary responsibility of the household usually falls on the women; men by default can focus more on their careers, promotional opportunities, and career development.
Gender schema theory originates in the home and can transcend to the workplace, affecting women in limiting their perspectives about gender roles, and subsequently defaulting leadership roles to the male to fulfill. Some women may feel that taking on the role of a CEO, means they may have to project male characteristics, rather than simply being themselves. It does make a difference that men hold the lion’s share of the leadership positions since research consistently identifies desirable leadership traits as more prevalent in women than in men. In that case, the more qualified person should lead, regardless of gender.