Women in Leadership

June 21, 2018

Though some may want to deny it, men and women are judged differently when it comes to obtaining leadership roles in the workplace. This judgment is due to many reasons, but confirmation bias, a preference for promotional skills, and the acceptance of risk-taking and certainty in men but not in women all may play a role. Both men and women need to help change this.

According to the Center of American Progress, although women hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, they lag substantially behind men when it comes to representation in leadership positions. Consider:

  • Just 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs are women.
  • Women represent 20 percent of boards of directors in these companies.
  • Only 20 percent of the U.S. Congress is represented by women.
  • Though the U.S. ranks first in women’s educational attainment on the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Index of 144 countries, it ranks 26th in women’s economic participation and opportunity and 73rd in women’s political empowerment.

Women have outnumbered men on college campuses in the U.S. since 1988. They earned at least one-third of law degrees since 1980 and accounted for one-third of medical school students by 1990. Yet they have not moved up to positions of prominence and power in America to be commensurate with these statistics.

In a broad range of fields, women in leadership positions, top leadership positions—as equity law partners, medical school deans and corporate executives—remains stuck at 10 to 20 percent.

So why does this inequality persist? Three things to consider:

Confirmation Bias
According to a recent New York Times article titled “Picture a Leader. Is She a Woman?”, researchers found that when adults were asked to draw a picture of a leader, both men and women drew the leader as a man.

Nilanjana Dasgupta, professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, found that when we “process information through the lens of stereotype” our interpretation may be “consistent with stereotyped expectations rather than objective reality.” People who are consistently exposed to leaders who fit one profile will be more likely to notice leaders who continually fit that same profile. Dasgupta says this is how the self-reinforcing confirmation bias cycle works.

The more we repeat a false narrative of leadership as more masculine in our workplace, education, media, parenting and daily life, the more this perception persists. It is up to each of us then to recognize when we are promulgating this confirmation bias and resist it.

Promotional Skills
“Managing a team superbly ultimately proves you have great skills as a manager,”
says executive coach Carlos Martin. “But building strong outside networks is a promotional skill aimed at getting recognition for the larger organization. So while women are honing their management skills and sending the message that they’re wonderful managers, their male colleagues are busy building promotional skills and sending the message that they’re terrific promoters.”

Those in positions of power often see these promotional skills as more important for the organization as a whole and therefore those exhibiting them are more worthy of a leadership role. We could debate the qualities of management vs. leadership, but it’s clear that those in positions of power need to recognize these management skills as foundational to leadership. And it is equally clear that women need to accept these promotional skills as an important leadership quality, and seek to further develop them.

Risk-Taking & Certainty
Martin also found through psychometric surveys and coaching data suggesting that among those at the executive level, men are more likely to be rewarded for daring and risk-taking, while their women counterparts are more likely to be rewarded for precision and correctness.

And a study at the Harvard Business School titled “Who Gets Heard and Why” found that women are more likely than men to downplay their certainty when they speak. Many women adopted this habit, since certainty is often interpreted as arrogance in women.

Women tend to fear getting tagged with this trait with good reason as women perceived as arrogant are often viewed in highly negative terms, whereas arrogance in men is often interpreted with confidence and boldness. Is it possible for us to encourage women to speak with certainty without attaching arrogance to it?

Whether it’s confirmation bias, the preference for promotional skills, or seeing risk-taking and certainty as positives for men alone, we continue to undermine efforts for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles.

Research has shown that, when being considered for a promotion, women are more likely to be evaluated based on their contribution, while men are more likely to be evaluated based on their potential. This notion of potential is, of course, nebulous and highly subjective often resulting in a less qualified man getting the job.

My own daughter enters college next fall and plans to major in a male-dominated field of study. My hope is that as she proves herself worthy in obtaining her bachelor’s degree, she will enter the workplace four years from now with equal opportunities for leadership. And that her gender will not diminish her skills and expertise in order to reach her full potential.

Reward Evidence-based Decision-Making

December 10, 2015

“Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”
                                                        –Mulla Nasruddin, 13th Century Sufi sage/fool

Success in business today requires many things. Perhaps most importantly, organizations need to embrace learning. And both the employer and the employee have responsibilities in this learning.

Employers should do what they can to engage employees and keep them intrinsically motivated to learn. And this learning must include the ability to be implemented otherwise it undermines the employee’s motivation as well as limits organizational improvement.

At the same time, employees should adopt a growth mindset so they continually achieve and learn as they navigate their careers. This means taking on new challenges, expanding their skills, and broadening their area of expertise. It also means challenging the status quo.

Here are two scenarios:

Bob discovers the new product his company is launching has a fatal flaw that may undermine its success in the marketplace. He double-checks his research and concludes it is correct. His company however discourages naysayers and, despite his certainty, Bob is concerned that speaking up will be detrimental to his career. He stays silent, the product flops, yet Bob’s career growth is preserved.

Nancy discovers the new project her company is rolling out will miss its target completion date. She double-checks her research and concludes it is correct. Because she works for a learning organization that encourages direct feedback, Nancy presents her findings, the project is given additional resources to complete on time, and it is a resounding success. Nancy is rewarded with a promotion and celebrated throughout the company.

Which company do you work for? Are you Bob or are you Nancy?

Organizations should encourage employees to challenge assumptions, speak directly about the “elephant in the room,” and take calculated risks when it’s right for the business. This theory must go beyond mere words in an employee handbook and extend into actual practice for how things get done inside the organization.

On his way to inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison reportedly said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That is a healthy perspective on reaching success and how learning is paramount.

The best companies perform a post-mortem on projects and products with the purpose of pointing out and learning from what went well and not so well. Too often, however, the lessons of what went wrong are not adequately documented and communicated, so the missteps are likely repeated.

Economists too often see people as highly rational in their decision-making and don’t take into account the irrationality of human beings, says Richard Thaler, professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in his book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics.

“It is time for everyone—from bureaucrats to teachers to corporate leaders—to recognize that they live in world of Humans and to adopt the same data-driven approach to their jobs and lives that good scientists use.”

Here are some basic lessons in behavioral science Thaler suggests can make this possible in the corporate world. Observe, collect data and speak up.

Observe – This means seeing the world not as you wish it be, but as it really is. The first step to overturning conventional wisdom, when conventional wisdom is wrong, is to look at the world around you as it is.

Collect Data – People become overconfident because they never bother to document their past track record of wrong predictions, and then make things worse by falling victim to confirmation bias—they look only for evidence that confirms their preconceived hypotheses. The only protection against overconfidence is to systematically collect data, especially data that can prove you wrong. This is what proves especially difficult because we are so devoted to our hypothesis.

Speak Up – Many organizational errors could be prevented if someone is willing to tell the boss something is wrong. Thaler cites the tragic 1977 runway crash of a KLM flight because the second officer was too timid to speak up to the pilot, his boss. Culture, professional courtesy, and most of all fear keep people from challenging the boss, even when they know the boss is wrong.

“But we cannot expect people to take risks, by speaking up or in other ways, if by so doing they will get fired,” says Thaler. “Good leaders must create environments in which employees feel that making evidence-based decisions will always be rewarded, no matter what outcome occurs.”

In Thaler’s ideal organizational environment, everyone is encouraged to observe, collect data, and speak up. And the bosses who create such environments risk only a few bruises to their egos, which is a small price to pay for increasing the flow of new ideas and decreasing the risk of disasters.

It comes down to more humility in leaders and more courage in employees. When both are present, organizations can learn from their experiences and become more successful. And organizations should encourage more Nancys and fewer Bobs.