Even with all the gains women have made in education and workforce participation, many barriers to women’s leadership still exist. Some of these barriers are the result of deeply entrenched cultural messages about women. They may seem invisible, or simply the result of common sense, rather than any systematic effort to bar women from leadership. It is important to explore these barriers and create ways to surmount them if women are to assume more leadership positions.
Gender Differences are Overemphasized
No one would argue that men and women are exactly the same. However, the differences between men and women are often overemphasized, and used to justify the lack of women in leadership. For instance, the idea that men are “more rational” and women are “more emotional” is often used to explain why women do not assume executive functions more often. Similarly, physical differences in size or strength may be used to justify the lack of women in some fields. Ideas about women as natural caregivers are also commonly invoked to explain why women make good managers but poor executives. In truth, all humans are capable of a wide range of traits. And while men and women may approach the world differently, based on how they are socialized, these differences seldom mean that one gender is automatically better at leadership, management, or any other aspect of life. This overemphasis on gender differences means that qualified female candidates are often dismissed out of hand for leadership positions.
Gender Differences are Undervalued
Men and women are socialized differently – they learn how to operate in the world differently, and this can impact their approach to leadership. Research shows that men and women often use very different communication styles, for instance, with women more focused on relationships and men more focused on communicating facts. Women tend to be more collaborative, and men more competitive, according to research. These gender differences are often undervalued, and used to justify the dominance of men in leadership. For instance, our “get it done” culture may undervalue female leaders’ focus on building relationships. Learning to see women’s leadership traits and styles as different from, but equally valuable as, men’s leadership styles in one key step in increasing women’s leadership.
Women Lack Professional Networks
One of the most profound barriers to women’s leadership is the degree to which women lack professional networks. Numerous studies have shown that men’s professional networks are instrumental to their success. A strong network alerts you to opportunities, may give you a foot in the door with a new organization, serves as a source of support and development, and generally encourages personal and professional growth. People who lack a strong professional network typically lag behind those with solid networks in terms of employment, promotion, and compensation. Women may face barriers to forming networks for many reasons. Men may be reluctant to network with women because of an overemphasis on gender differences or because of fear of appearing to engage in inappropriate relationships by socializing with female colleagues. (Our culture still lacks a good script for non-sexual or non-romantic friendships between men and women.) Women may be reluctant to network with men for the same reasons. Women are also the primary caregivers and homemakers, and so family responsibilities may mean that after-work socializing and other networking activities are not possible or not prioritized.
Work and Family Conflict
The conflict between work and family often underlies the lack of women in leadership. Even in two-partner families, women tend to take on the bulk of responsibility for childcare, housework, and other family needs. Many women also find themselves the primary caretaker for an aging parent. Cultural messages that a woman who puts her career before her family is a “bad mother” put a great deal of pressure on women to balance work and family, and to sacrifice career for family if it becomes necessary. While not all women who are in the paid labor force have children or otherwise engage in care work, a large proportion do and thus face this dilemma. Because many organizations do not promote work-life balance, women who must balance career and family often miss out on opportunities that other colleagues can leverage. When it comes time for promotion, this may be used against a female candidate who is seen to not be sufficiently invested in her career due to family obligations. Family obligations may also mean women forgo important educational and development opportunities that would help them advance into leadership.