Women in Leadership


Women in Leadership Positions – Simple Truths

Recently I was asked why I think there are more males than females in leadership positions in today’s business world. Then I was asked what I thought I could do to contribute to the “improvement” of the situation. Unfortunately, as a leadership professional, I know the truth behind the reasons and find these to be sexist questions. Undoubtedly, many in this world might have the same questions, but I stress that if you ask a sexist question, you will undoubtedly get a sexist answer.

These questions are, by all means, a setup. If you were to answer these questions directly, more than likely, someone would tear you apart for directly stating the facts. The truth is that the answers to these questions are multifaceted and require a double-sided approach. There is a positive side and a not-so-positive side, depending on how you would like to look at it and on what gender you are reviewing the information from. However, the “not so positive” side is more scientific and has more to do with our preferences as a species rather than some societal roadblock. So let us tone down the offensive posture for a second and embrace intellectual perspectives.

Let us first explore some basic ideas surrounding leadership regarding gender. It is an interesting paradigm, for sure, yet easily explained. According to numerous studies, individuals with greater physical stature are more likely to be perceived as capable and competent by followers and more likely to be respected and feared by opponents.

This could present a problem for many women. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that men are usually stronger, taller, heavier, etc. Women tend to carry a more nurturing physique. Based on this simple scientific fact, it would be difficult to imagine what would contribute to altering the underlying physical and psychological factors behind why people choose the leaders they do.

The perception of the ability to handle stress or threats appears to be crucial and ingrained in our DNA. Can we purposefully override that and place women in leadership roles? Of course! But perhaps the natural desire for male leadership derives from some survival mechanism. Or maybe it is something even more straightforward. Massive amounts of research indicate that females tend to underrate their performance. In other words, they hold themselves back for any number of reasons. Peggy Drexler of Forbes Women, who reviews similar data, backs this up by suggesting that all women need is a shot of confidence and ambition. Perhaps if women were more “alpha” in the workplace, more leadership headline positions would be taken by females.

This may be coming across as sexist, but we need to understand that in more than fifty articles searched and numerous definitions reviewed, I can find no mention of a single physical attribute (such as gender) to be necessary regarding leadership ability. It must be something else. Still, we must also understand that throughout history, males are, more often than not, the choice for leadership roles. This is demonstrated time and time again. Only five of the 209 Egyptian pharaohs were female, only four of the 187 Roman emperors were female, and only ten empresses in the 26 centuries of Imperial Japan (Murray, 2012). Recent studies show that only 7% of government leaders worldwide or those in executive positions were female, and in none of the major national business indices did female chief executive officers (CEOs) exceed 6% (Canada’s Financial Post 500).

Can women make great leaders? Of course, they can. Are there women leaders? This has been the case throughout history, even when it was frowned upon. The number of women in headline leadership roles is also slowly increasing over time. Do women want to be leaders? That is a whole different question and one that I cannot answer. However, as suggested before by many, it is not for the lack of opportunity that more women are not in leadership roles. Still, the question about female leadership is misleading. This paradigm/question is skewed because the word “improve” becomes an issue when we look at the bigger picture.

The fact is that there are more females in the workforce than there are males. More females get into mid-level management than males do. According to Prudential Financial, most American women are now the breadwinners in their households. More women than men under 30 are graduating from college, and women are beginning to earn more than their male counterparts (Brittany, 2013). I would say things are “improving” all the time. One could easily make the argument that women are taking over the workplace.

The point is that there is more than meets the eye, and the idea of “improving” the situation is not clearly defined. It appears that women are very dominant in the workplace. Still, we must ask ourselves whether “equality” would be an improvement. If so, would that require an increase in the number of women in leadership and a decline in the number of women in the workforce? Would it require a leveling of the compensation or graduation rates? These are probably not good ideas for the entire female gender.

My point is that “ideal” is relative, and we should not continue to subscribe to sexist or racial ideology to the point where we cannot see the forest for the trees. There have been massive improvements, and things are getting better because more and more people are embracing our differences.

If someone can handle their business better than the next person, they deserve the job – regardless of whether it is a leadership position and irrespective of whether or not it is a woman. I hope that more people will subscribe to this idea for my daughter’s sake.

You might also like my article titled Leadership Lessons from the Mouths of Leaders