More women are stepping into leadership roles than ever before, running businesses and creating their own wealth. Yet, as evolved as we think we are becoming in this fast-paced world of interconnectivity and perceived push for equal rights, the gender bias continues to creep in to every facet of our lives. From who we vote for, to who runs big business, or to whom we interact with every day, or the subtle biases of stereotyped traditional working roles, archaic views of what ‘leadership’ looks like predominate.
Leadership consultant, coach and UK delegate to the G20’s Women20 specialising in women’s economic empowerment, Rebecca Hill, believes there are several ways in which that gender bias continues to manifest in our community. Through reinforcement of perceptions in the media and publicly elected positions, as well as policy making and utilisation, the current landscape sees women often still left behind, even when the intentions are good.
“I am concerned that women are being put off leadership because of what they see going on in the media, particularly in the political sphere and the way women leaders are portrayed in that context and held to a different standard. Male leaders tend to get feedback on their performance, but women leaders tend to get personal comments – derogatory and complimentary, which is not a good thing,” Rebecca says.
“For example, men still tend to dominate political candidate shortlists, which means women have a much slimmer chance of a shot at being elected. This reinforces the bias around what it means to be a politician or an elected official. If we, as the electorate are going to be going to be paying for these individuals to be working on behalf of the general public, then we need to know that these people, across all levels of organisations, are representative of the general public – which is certainly not the case currently,” she says.
The same scenario plays out in big business – leaders are often an ill-representation of the community they serve. Women, when reaching leadership roles, may be expected to ‘lead like a man’, rather than embrace the more “female” qualities that, as research has shown again and again, are actually much more effective in today’s management realm. Rebecca notes that in organisations and big business, the focus of any efforts to close the gender gap continues, ironically, predominantly around ‘fixing the women’ rather than fixing the culture. This mentality needs challenging and addressing.
“It’s clear that, because of a number of converging factors driven largely by technology, leadership roles have become so pressured and so all-consuming, that many women are put off going for them or are not considered for them, due to the additional mental and physical load they are already bearing around caring responsibilities. I think there’s a certain type of leader that is rising to the top of large organisations and I find that deeply worrying. They are not necessarily the leaders we need right now or for the future.”
The inherent drivers and the levers that enable women leaders to thrive, must be better understood, valued and utilised – and that starts at a policy level. Rebecca feels that, while inroads have been made in the past when it comes to women in the workplace, the pendulum has begun to swing too far the other way. While conservatism dissipated over the past 50 years in the UK, women began achieving higher levels of education, working and owning their own wealth. Rebecca feels the effort to equalise, or provide a supportive infrastructure for women juggling home, caring and work, have done little but disadvantage. Women and men need a carefully considered and well-funded caring infrastructure which includes a paid parental leave system that incentivises both parents, coupled with effective onramps to bring women back into the workplace.
It’s not about sending them on leadership courses and encouraging them to lean in, it’s about changing the culture of the organisation that enables them to lead and thrive in leadership roles.”
“It’s helpful for the men, as much as it is for women, to have formal levers in place. For example, I don’t think we would have seen any traction around the gender pay gap reporting if it wasn’t for policy. This type of legislation is really powerful, as it opens up conversations at the board level and at the management level around how we address the situation. It’s not just about women fixing the system,” she said.
“It’s not about sending them on leadership courses and encouraging them to lean in, it’s about changing the culture of the organisation that enables them to lead and thrive in leadership roles.”
The idea that ‘women lack confidence’ is of major concern to Rebecca when discussing why women can’t or won’t take on leadership roles.
“The notion that ‘women lack confidence’ really concerns me. Confidence, for me, is like presenting with a headache – there are a million causes behind it and you really need to understand what the causes are. It’s not because women lack confidence that we aren’t seeing more women in leadership, or we are not seeing more women set up their own businesses, or we are not seeing more women leading in the public sector or government, it’s because the devil is in the details – you have to be really good at breaking down what the issues are,” she explained.
“Many women lack confidence in an organisational setting quite rightly because there’s a double bind. If they negotiate, they get punished more by men and women than if a man negotiates. There are different expectations around women and how assertive they are, because, again, they get punished if they push too far – the evidence is there for this, it’s been well researched.”
“Women entrepreneurs have the aspiration, that’s not the problem, but they are also very realistic about how much extra burden they carry in terms of the mental load and physical load of running families and caring responsibilities. They are very mindful of what they feel they can and can’t manage. A lot of them also don’t have access to relatable role models,” Rebecca said.
As well as time, funding holds many women entrepreneurs back, as women just don’t have access to the same power networks as many men do. There is much work to be done around educating investors as to the value women’s businesses bring and that they perform as well, if not better at times than those run by men.
According to the British Business Bank research, women get around 1 per cent of all available venture capital funding in the UK. This alarming statistic points to a dire need to open up alternative sources of funding.
“Ultimately, trying to fix big business and get them on board with policy is going very slowly. What we can do is get women up and running, building the types of businesses they want to build and at the same time improving society,” Rebecca said.
“There is a real urgency now for future generations – we need to crack on with it. There’s a lot we can do individually and collectively to change the system and that starts with us.”