Gendered Leadership Myths
December 14, 2022
Gender stereotypes predominate across society. They're especially harmful in business and other institutions where they can hamper women's ascension to leadership positions.
A myth is a fallacy or misconception that is widely viewed as conventional wisdom. The belief that the world is flat is an example of a historical myth that was ultimately debunked and discarded.
Some myths persist despite solid evidence of their invalidity. Elephants aren't really afraid of mice, you don't need to wait 30 minutes to swim after eating food, and MSG does not cause headaches. Despite the evidence, people continue to believe all of these are true. A myth that our culture asserts constantly can have remarkable staying power.
Constant repetition gives myths the power of truth. A biological predisposition toward conformity renders humans susceptible toward accepting beliefs that others accept, even without supporting evidence (or in the face of contradictory evidence). As a result, debunking myths through education can be challenging. Those who challenge widely accepted myths face an uphill climb. When they attempt to convince others of what they have learned, they may be perceived as unwelcome iconoclasts, isolated in their pursuit of the truth.
There are numerous myths associated with gender differences such as:
- Women are smarter than men
- Men are stronger than women
- Boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink
While these misconceptions are generally accepted by the mainstream public, education allows rational individuals to at least consider the possibility of outliers. For example, some women can outperform a male in a strength task (e.g., arm-wrestling) and both men and women can achieve high scores on tests of intelligence.
Similarly, cognitive rationalization should validate the sheer sensitivity of a child's formative brain development, which has been influenced to conform to gender stereotypes through gender-prescribed colors (pink vs blue), styles of apparel (dresses vs. bowties), and even toys (dolls vs trucks). Similar gender stereotypes manifest in the formation of societal role expectations; for example, the belief that women are nurturers better-suited for jobs as teachers and nurses while men are aggressors who make better astronauts, architects, and corporate bosses.
Gendered leadership myths also persist as generalized societal presumptions. These myths exacerbate a social context that scripts and encodes the roles of men and women according to ambivalent views aligned with beliefs about gender norms.
What follows are a few of these myths and their alternative reality that provide another vantage in which to evaluate the notion of accuracy or misconception.
Myth # 1: The 'Old Boys Club' is the primary influencer of advancement
The Old Boys Club has been a protected entity of generally white males sharing similar social, economic, and educational backgrounds. These men typically hold the power of privilege and information within industries and organizations. Over time, the Old Boys Club has slowly declined as widespread prioritization of diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) has pierced through industries and organizations once dominated by the inner circle of powerful male influence.
There is truth in the unconscious and conscious practice of homologous reproduction, whereby male leaders generally hire a higher percentage of males and female leaders generally hire a higher percentage of females. However, asserting that promotions to leadership positions within an organization is primarily a function of the 'Old Boys Club' does a disservice to the profession of human resources and general management. Effective and successful leaders understand that ascension to leadership positions should be a function of merit, longevity, and skillset as opposed to gender assignment.
There is still evidence of the existence of Old Boy's clubs, but these fraternal organizations are shunned as an exclusive means to ensure only white males obtain positions of power. While inside recommendations still influence advancement to leadership positions, promotions are no longer primarily a function of the Old Boys Club.
Myth # 2: The glass ceiling is impossible to penetrate
The glass ceiling is a metaphor for the barriers women and minorities face when pursuing managerial or executive positions in business, politics, and other industries. The traditional corporate hierarchy found especially in male-dominated industries and organizations creates an invisible barrier that is often difficult for women and minorities to penetrate.
However, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is an increasingly hot subject in the twenty-first century. Modern organizations aspire to a diverse workplace culture because it provides a strategic business advantage. There are numerous examples of women breaking through the glass ceiling to penetrate the C-suite. Whether these examples are by virtue of gender-quota mandates often found in government and non-profit board representation or simply through the traditional hiring and appointment process, the fact remains that women are advancing to high levels of leadership in numerous occupations.
A report on women in the workplace from consulting firm McKinsey & Company projects that, if females continue to advance in corporations and industry at the current rate, gender equality at the senior vice president level would be achieved by 2040. Women leaders are rising to positions of power at an accelerated pace, and there is increasing pressure on businesses to ensure a glass ceiling is not a factor preventing women from advancement to leadership roles. Conducting unconscious bias training, ensuring blind-screenings of candidates, and setting gender-diversity goals are a few strategies to remove glass ceilings.
Myth # 3: Men and women lead differently
Role conformity myths advance the stereotypical ideology that genders differ in leadership styles. According to the myth, male leaders are generally authoritative and direct while female leaders are nurturing and relationship-oriented. Many accept this myth and conclude that these different generalized traits means males make better leaders.
To debunk that myth, an athletic administrator asked their women's basketball team who vocally preferred a male coach to create a laundry list of the traits, behaviors, and qualities expected in the candidates applying to fill a vacancy. Upon reviewing the list, the team was asked, "If the institution found someone who embodied everything on the list, would the gender of the candidate still matter?"
The truth is that effective and successful leaders generally embody similar traits and behaviors in managing people and tasks, regardless of gender. These traits include integrity, accountability, and confidence. When appropriate, a male leader may exhibit nurturing and empathetic traits that are stereotypical of women, and conversely, a female leader may demonstrate aggressive and assertive traits that are stereotypical of men.
The skill set of effective leaders has been compared to a set of golf clubs, with each club representing a different leadership trait that is best for the situation. Men and women do not necessarily lead differently, especially those who are considered effective or successful leaders. They're not all the same golf club, but all can get you from the tee to the green.
Myth # 4: Women are not as interested as men in advancement
A 2021 study assessing employee motivation and involving 45,756 men and women around the world noted a less than two percent (2%) variance based on gender when comparing responses to questions pertaining to their motivation to gain status, get ahead, and outperform the competition. While interest entails a baseline curiosity, motivation is a stronger predictor of action or ambition. Therefore, if there is only a 2% difference in the motivation between genders regarding the desire to advance to leadership positions, it is highly likely that the gap in interest is even smaller.
Suggesting that women are not as interested as men in career advancement opportunities is a fallacy often perpetuated by beliefs that females aren't as prone to taking risks or applying for positions, regardless of whether they meet the qualifications. Further misconceptions suggest that women are more often constrained by family responsibilities that inhibit them from pursuing higher positions within an organization.
All that is changing as gender roles change. Even the United States (U.S.) Department of Labor recognizes that a male qualifies for benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act. A 2020 article on the changing family demography supports the conclusion that the division of household family responsibilities is becoming increasingly gender-neutral. Authors rationalize that changes in the structural makeup of families have been influenced, in part, by higher rates of divorce and the legality of same-sex marriages. Today's society embodies an increasing percentage of males considered primary caretakers for children or elders. Studies indicate that the genders have near-equal levels of interest in occupational advancement regardless of their family obligations.
Myths about gender and leadership represent only a few of many assumptions regarding men and women in the workplace. Some misconceptions are perpetuated by perceptions of gender role expectations as opposed to inherent gender disparities. Other misconceptions are simply outdated conventional ideas of what once was viewed as "the norm" in business, medicine, government, or society in general.
Consider the research and practices that have challenged conventional wisdom to defy outdated or inaccurate myths about gender and leadership. For example, studies have demonstrated that a child placed in temporary solitary confinement will interact with all the objects in a room regardless of whether it is a toy soldier or a Barbie doll. It took Hasbro nearly half a century to introduce a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven, but times do change; recent advertising for the product features both boys and girls.
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