You know an issue is gaining importance when studies and surveys begin looking into it. When world-class universities devote resources and research to understand its implications, the issue has worked its way into the public conscience.
Gender balance and “women in the workplace” issues have reached that plateau.
In May, 2015 Harvard Business School announced the Gender Initiative; its objective: “to accelerate progress of women leaders.” Such a prestigious and highly visible program adds to the voices decrying the dominance of gender stereotypes when it comes to making hiring, promotion, and board membership decisions.
“So much of what people think they know about gender is simply not substantiated by empirical evidence but instead is based on gender stereotypes,” according to Robin Ely, Harvard Business School professor and the person who heads the initiative. She’s right, of course, and she’s not alone.
A study by the Catalyst, Inc., a leading research and advisory organization focusing on women in the workplace, found that gender-based stereotyping often colors c-suite perceptions of women leaders, frequently misrepresenting their true talents. This, in turn, widens the gender gap.
The biggest red flag of the study, Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge:” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed, was the finding that men consider women to be inferior problem solvers, one of the critical qualities for effective leadership and a hallmark behavior of a CEO. Since men far outnumber women at the top executive level, and are almost always the decision makers when it comes to hiring and promoting to the senior ranks, such misperceptions make a significant contribution to sustaining and even widening the gender gap in leadership.
Is there a solution to this challenging and vexing workplace issue?
There isn’t a magic wand to wave, but there are steps we can take, informed by research such as the Catalyst study and the Harvard initiative, that will begin to close the gap, or at least bridge it.
Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, has developed a series of steps aimed at eliminating gender-bias. Among them is education.
Both men and women need to understand that workplace stereotypes exist and recognize how that influences decision-making. That will sensitize us to the biases we all have. Decision-making, ultimately, benefits from that self-awareness.
The hiring/promotion process has to have clear, dispassionate, gender-neutral criteria applied to all candidates. Numerous examples, and supporting research, indicate that more women will be hired and subsequently moved into leadership roles when they exist.
When decision-makers are held accountable for their decisions, they think the process through very carefully, taking into account the criteria.
Women also must be held accountable; accountable for the career decisions we make and the reasons we make them.
When women lower their expectations of getting hired in certain positions (reverse stereotyping, if you will), they are doing themselves – and women in general – a disservice. By avoiding jobs in male-dominated industries, for instance, we breathe life into the myths and misrepresentations of women’s capabilities.
We women need to see ourselves as capable and competitive with men for any job, and comfortable at any organizational level up to and including the c-suite. That requires us to rethink our career objectives, get the education and experience required and follow our career dreams wherever they take us.
Jan Molino is the CEO & Managing Partner of Aspire Ascend, a service provider and member-based organization, that helps women advance toward leadership. She is an experienced speaker and facilitated numerous forums and panel discussions on this subject. Jan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.