How to Close the Gender Leadership Gap

Businesswoman making presentation.

Michelle Obama once said, "No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens." The percentage of women and men in the world is roughly equal, so why is it that so much data shows a large divide in business leadership roles?

In the 2019 American stock market index S&P 500 list, only 5.2% of the companies were led by female CEOs. Additionally, in the 2019 Fortune 500 list, only 6.6% of the companies were led by female CEOs; although this is an improvement from last year’s list (4.8%), we still have a long way to go in terms of leadership diversity.

What is the Gender Leadership Gap?

Essentially, men are more likely to hold leadership positions than women. This is evident when it comes to leaders in business, education, politics, religious institutions, and so on.

In a 2017 study titled Gender and leadership emergence: A meta-analysis and explanatory model, researchers found that although the gender gap in leadership has declined throughout time, a contemporary gap still exists. Historically, the gap has largely emerged from implicit biases about traditional gender roles: men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. However, it goes beyond just that. Stereotypical gender traits also play a large role in the leadership gap that still remains today.

The study defines both agentic traits and communal traits; agentic traits include being dominant and assertive, while communal traits include being warm and nurturing. Those with agentic traits are more likely to share their thoughts and ideas; as a result, they’re more often thought of by others as leader-like.

Keep in mind that leadership and its different styles are not a “one size fits all.” Communal traits such as empathy and sensitivity are actually incredibly valuable for effective leadership. Unfortunately, when communal traits are seen as less leader-like, it’s more difficult for others to understand the importance of them; however, when women start to display agentic traits, it’s often perceived negatively as aggressive and “not communal enough,” resulting in a lose-lose situation.

Reasons for the Gender Leadership Gap

Implicit Bias and Gender Stereotypes

As shown in the results of the study above, gender stereotypes and implicit biases play large roles in the gender leadership gap. Women--especially women of color--are victims of implicit bias, which is when societal stereotypes and attitudes subconsciously affect how people view others. This can lead to unintended discimination against women, and companies can miss out on gaining talented female leaders.

Lack of Access to Resources

It’s more common for male-owned businesses to receive startup funding from venture capitalists, angel investors, and so forth. Additionally, during a research study conducted in 2018 on loan size, online credit resource Biz2Credit found that the average funded amount for women-owned businesses was 31% lower than their male counterparts.

Self-Doubt and Insecurity

Throughout the years, society has ingrained in many women that they are less competent; as a result, women tend to doubt themselves and overthink the ways in which they can “prove” their worth, and fear failure of any kind. This can stand in the way of their success.

Why Women Make Great Leaders

Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

Unfortunately, men have dealt with the societal expectation to suppress their emotions; it’s more “common” and acceptable for women to show emotional intelligence, which involves self-awareness, ability to manage your emotions, and empathy toward others. Emotional intelligence and empathy are incredibly important business skills because they boost collaboration and trust.

Adaptability

Today’s business world is constantly changing, and the ability to adapt to those changes is a vital skill. Women are innately able to adapt to changes around them, from relationships to motherhood to obstacles in the workforce.

Role Models

Girls and young women would highly benefit from seeing successful women in leadership positions. If they see that it is truly possible to attain, they’re more likely to gain ambition and purpose.

Reaction to Feedback

In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) study on gender and self-improvement, research results showed that women are more open to improvement when they receive feedback. This is known as a growth mindset. Instead of reacting defensively to feedback, leaders need to shift to a growth mindset--using feedback to improve and become stronger--in order to be successful and expand their businesses.

Effectiveness

In another HBR study on leadership effectiveness, researchers asked individuals to rate male and female leaders based on 16 different proficiencies. Results showed that at all levels, women were rated higher in 12 out of 16. These findings prove the conclusion: We need more women leaders in business.

Benefits of Diversity in Leadership

Variety of Ideas and Perspectives

A more diverse leadership team leads to more viewpoints and knowledge. In turn, this can lead to valuable, creative ideas, and solutions to tough problems. Diversity can also create an overall business culture of belonging and empathy toward new perspectives.

Better Performance

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) conducted a study on diverse leadership teams, and concluded that diverse companies actually increase innovation and produce 19% more revenue.

More Connections

Businesses with diverse leadership will appeal to a wider audience and connect more easily with others. Diverse leaders and employees can share their insight on particular groups; this will especially help businesses that rely solely on customers.

How to Close the Gender Leadership Gap

Be Perceptive

Women must stay educated and aware, but it’s also important for others--employees, employers, policy makers--to communicate effectively and act when they see a problem. Additionally, educate yourself and be mindful of any implicit biases you may hold.

Own Strengths and Successes

Women often suffer from imposter syndrome, which can be tough to overcome. Instead of feeling like a fraud, embrace your strengths and know that you deserve the recognition you receive. Celebrating small wins allows you to better track your progress, form healthy habits, and as a result, boost your confidence.

Support Other Women

It’s important for women to root for and support other women. Remember that everyone faces their own struggles. It may be difficult, but instead of letting others’ achievements bring you down, use it as motivation for your own journey.

Takeaway

Thankfully, it’s been acknowledged that the gender leadership gap still remains a problem, and the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that one exists. Once we identify and understand the value of diversity in leadership and the reasons for the gender leadership gap, we can take the next steps to close it once and for all.

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