American government and corporations subscribe—to a discouraging degree—to institutionalized myths about gender and leadership that perpetuate gender stereotypes and exaggerate or completely fabricate gender differences. As a result, the number of women in executive leadership positions remains far below where it should and could be. If we are to eliminate the gender gap and optimize all human resources, a reconfiguration of perceptions is necessary.
In a previous article on gender myths, I debunked beliefs that emanate from and perpetuate gender biases, including those purporting that glass ceilings are impenetrable; that the Old Boys Club remains the primary gatekeeper to organizational advancement; that men and women have different leadership behaviors and leadership traits; and that women are less interested than their male counterparts in advancement.
Additional myths about gender and leadership continue to undermine the accurate perception that male leaders and women leaders are equally capable of leadership effectiveness in top-level managerial and political roles. This article debunks four additional myths to provide insight into the siloed and stereotypical beliefs about gender roles and leadership styles.
A mentor is an individual revered and emulated for their experience and behavior. They serve as both an aspirational and inspirational role model to someone less experienced. Whether through a formal arrangement or by indirect association, a mentor's words or actions can extend someone's professional network and open doors to career opportunities.
Research suggests that mentoring is one of the significant factors to address the under-representation of females in leadership roles. Depending on one's career stage and situational factors, relationships may last a few months, a few years, or a lifetime.
Men and women who purposefully seek and develop impactful relationships with individuals of influence—which is to say, mentoring relationships—may be better positioned to advance to a vacancy. However, believing that a woman would benefit more from another woman in a mentorship role assumes that men simply make better mentors, which, of course, is a false assumption.
Experts hold mixed opinions regarding whether the gender of a mentor truly matters for females seeking guidance for leadership development. Much more important than a mentor's gender is the value or strength of his or her social capital in the appropriate circles that can eventually be penetrated or accessed by the female protégé. The gender of the individual of influence who can make an introduction within a particular social circle should not matter, although it has been suggested that female leaders are more frequently aligned with individuals in the periphery of a social circle and men have greater access to the center. As that assumption may or may not be true, the important takeaway is to seek individuals of influence regardless of gender.
Try telling Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Mary Barra (CEO of General Motors), Hilary Rodham Clinton, or Angela Merkel (former Prime Minister of Germany) that women are not as ambitious as men: they would surely scoff or laugh at the assertion. The ambition-gap myth arises from stereotypical perceptions that males tend to be more aggressive and agentic, while women tend to be more nurturing and relationship-oriented. It is just that: a myth.
In fact, a report by the Boston Consulting Group following an analysis of over 200,000 employee survey responses indicated that men and women are equally ambitious in their desire to obtain a promotion or leadership position at the start of their careers. The report emphasized that ambition is not a fixed attribute but rather a state or condition that can change based on day-to-day interactions, communication, and activities.
The ambition-gap assumption based on gender may be attributed to the historical practice of mothers of newborns traditionally pausing their careers to parent. Even in such instances, that does not mean professional ambition has receded; only that it has been put on hold. Ambition can remain inherent in someone's character makeup even when it is not at the forefront of their daily actions.
Studies encouragingly indicate that the internal culture of one's company or business can positively impact the levels or the strength of an employee's aspirations. The ambition gap is almost non-existent in organizations that demonstrate a strong people-centered culture and facilitate a positive work environment that values gender diversity at all levels of the company or business. The Boston Consulting Group reported that in organizations making significant strides toward improving gender diversity, 85 percent of women and 87 percent of men aged 30 to 40 aspire for a promotion to a "higher leadership position."
The assumption that men are more ambitious than women is antiquated and, fortunately, receding. Millennial men are more prone to gender neutrality and gender equity. As a result, debunking the myth about the gender-based ambition gap (and many other myths) is not difficult in today's world of 'woke' social gatekeepers unafraid to challenge gender-based assumptions.
The myth that women with children lack the time to successfully meet leadership obligations piggybacks off of the previous myth suggesting a gender-based ambition gap, especially after starting a family. The lack of time tp meet obligations, whether professionally or personally, is a work-life integration issue whereby the two spheres tend to gravitate closer to each other rather than separate.
Work-life issues are not gender-specific. An inability to successfully meet the demands of a job and family responsibilities can manifest as a challenge for both men and women. Not only is childcare a culprit, but so are eldercare and petcare responsibilities, which also require time and attention.
True gender equity suggests that if roles were reversed, the same outcome would be apparent. Therefore, in the name of gender equality, to assume that men with children would also lack the time to successfully meet leadership obligations may not be completely wrong. It becomes an inaccurate statement only when it is based solely on gender. It is also an inaccurate statement if the individual in question actually does have time to successfully meet their leadership obligations. Either way, the myth that women cannot successfully meet their leadership obligations because they are women with children is debunked.
This myth, like myth #6, rests on the inaccurate assumption that men are more competitive and aggressive. An equally untrue corollary is that women can reach deals faster because their nurturing qualities emphasize the value of interpersonal relationships. In the real world, there are plenty of examples of women who are fierce negotiators. There are also plenty of examples of men who are not highly skilled in negotiating deals.
Whether men or women are better at negotiating may depend on the nature of the negotiations. One may argue that because of stereotypical male qualities, men are better at distributive bargaining, which entails one individual striving to gain as much pre-existing value as possible away from the other party. Negotiating the price of a car is an example of distributive negotiation.
On the other hand, one may argue that because of stereotypical feminine qualities, a woman is better at integrative bargaining, which entails both parties being equally satisfied. Negotiating a title change and revised job responsibilities for a deserving employee without an increase in compensation is an example of integrative bargaining, where both parties are satisfied and add value to the final outcome.
Research on conflict resolution by Kilmann and Thomas (1977) supports the different styles of negotiations where men were found to employ competition strategies more frequently than women, and women more frequently used accommodation, compromise, and collaboration strategies. Stereotypical gender role assumptions suggest women are better at integrative negotiations due to their typical conflict resolution styles favoring compromise and collaboration, while men excel at distributive negotiations due to their tendency to use competition to resolve conflict.
However, another approach to addressing gender and negotiations is to stress the value of individuals with the knowledge and capacity to knowingly and purposefully select the appropriate style for the situation. The key point is that anyone entering into negotiations should over-prepare to gather the most rational points of persuasion that will likely lead to the desired outcome. Women should not be viewed as inferior in negotiations but alternatively recognized for a style that may differ from male styles.
Debunking a myth that has been ingrained through socialized acceptance of phenomena is not an easy task. Underlying many myths related to gender and leadership are the outdated ideologies about the capabilities and attitudes of each gender regarding their ability to attain, advance, or achieve success in a position of power. However, it is becoming a bit easier in the wake of a new, more-diverse generation entering the workforce that is more prone to understanding the new normal of gender equity, remote, and flexible work opportunities.
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