Our Discomfort with Powerful Women: What We Can Do

I recently met a woman from India while we both waited for a train. The first question she asked me was, “Why have you never elected a woman leader in the United States, as we have done in India?” All I could say was, “That’s a good question.” She went on to ask, “Do you think Hillary Clinton will win the election this time? Is the United States ready yet for a woman leader?” I truthfully answered, “I really don’t feel confident that we are ready. The facts are not very encouraging—and I hope I’m wrong.” In a recent article in the New York Times, Bryce Covert cited these discouraging facts:

  • There has not yet been a woman elected to the White House.
  • The US Congress is less than 20 percent female.
  • In 2009, the year after Hillary Clinton conceded the nomination for president to Barack Obama, 13.5 percent of the top jobs in Fortune 500 companies were occupied by women. By 2013, that number rose to only 14.6 percent.
Covert goes on to note two troubling trends:
  • Women and minorities usually make it to corporate leadership in times of crisis.
  • They face backlash and added challenges once they get there that men don’t face.
Covert cited one study of large companies on the London Stock Exchange, which found that those companies who had put women on their boards “had just experienced consistently bad stock performance, while companies were generally stable before they appointed men.” Covert also cited a large study of all the promotions to chief executive at Fortune 500 companies over a fifteen-year period. The study found that “a company’s return on equity was consistently and significantly negative just before a woman or a minority got the job.” Because companies are commonly in crisis when women get the chance to take a senior leadership role, it is harder for women to succeed and more likely that they will be forced out and blamed for the problems. The second trend shows that once hired, women and minorities face challenges and forms of backlash that make success more difficult. Covert cited polling that shows both women and men prefer to have men in senior executive positions. (I have written in a previous article about the preference for male bosses.) In addition, Covert reported research on backlash against women when they act assertively at work. He noted that “female leaders are more likely to be called abrasive, strident, aggressive and even emotional.”  Women of color are also more likely to be called angry and militant when they act assertively. (Read more about this dynamic in another of my previous articles.)

What We Can Do to Help Pave the Way for Women Leaders

Because all change has to start with ourselves, we can take steps to fix these problems:
  1. Support women’s leadership in general. Remember, studies show that both women and men prefer having men as leaders, so we can reverse this trend by starting to be more supportive, in general, of women leaders at all levels and positions.
  2. Notice your own reflex reactions to quickly judge or feel uncomfortable with women leaders. I recently caught myself starting to be critical of a book by a well-known woman. I challenged myself to look for the value in the book, and I found plenty of value. Challenge yourself to ask, “What else could be true?” when you find yourself with an urge to negatively judge a woman.
  3. Whatever your political persuasion, challenge others when they judge a woman candidate as too aggressive, too ambitious, strident, or angry. These were many of the negative adjectives, often expressed by women, that were used to describe Hillary Clinton when she ran in 2008. Challenge people to speak about qualifications, facts, and issues, instead of personal characteristics.
Yes, we have work to do as a country to be ready to elect a female president, but by pushing through our unconscious bias and making conscious choices based on awareness, facts, and issues we can get ready to support women leaders. We can challenge ourselves and others to become aware of unconscious bias that stacks the deck against women leaders. Think about how important it is for girls to have more role models so that they are encouraged to aspire to be all they can be. Your decisions today will impact their future.   Image credit: Photo courtesy of Ralf Roletschek, Wikimedia Commons  ]]>

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