Why We Don’t See Women as Leaders and Why This Matters

The number of women leaders in the largest companies in the United States declined by 25 percent this year, as reported by Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times. Because the number of female chief executives is small to begin with, the departure of even one, such as the recent departure of Denise Morrison as the CEO of Campbell Soup Company, has a big numerical impact. In fact, the number of female CEOs has dropped from thirty-two to twenty-four in the past year. Why does it matters that so few women are CEOs and that the numbers are declining? One reason is that unconscious assumptions about gender determine who gets seen as leadership material when managers need to hire or promote. In a study reported by Heather Murphy of the New York Times, both women and men almost always draw a man when asked to draw an effective leader. Murphy reports on another study where research participants were asked to listen in by phone to a fictional sales meeting. In some of the “meetings,” study participants heard “Eric” offer change-oriented ideas while other participants heard “Erica” read the same script. When research participants were asked to rate the speaker, either Eric or Erica, on how much he or she had exhibited leadership, the Erics were far more likely than the Ericas to be identified as leaders, even though the Ericas shared exactly the same ideas. Murphy cites Nilanjana Dasgupta of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who explains that “when people are consistently exposed to leaders who fit one profile [male], they will be more likely to notice leaders who fit that same profile in the future.” In other words, even when a woman acts like a leader, her talents are less likely to be noticed or identified as leadership because the generally accepted profile of a leader is a man. This inherent bias is why it matters that the number of women in high visibility CEO roles in big companies is declining. Murphy points out that we need to see more women in leadership roles to expand our unconscious assumptions about who can be an effective leader—and instead the numbers are declining. In fact, depressingly, every female executive who stepped down during the past year was replaced by a man. Miller notes that the obstacles for female executives are rooted in biases against women in power. In fact, Miller cites two studies to make her case:

  • Both women and men have families, but caregiving is considered to be a woman’s problem and, therefore, limits the opportunities made available to women.
  • Leadership ability does not appear to be affected by gender differences. A study of 2,600 executives found no difference in multiple areas assessed, including interpersonal skills, analytical and managerial skills, and general ability. Yet women were much less likely to become chief executives.
This problem is clearly a vicious cycle. Because we don’t see women in executive roles, women don’t get the opportunity to be hired or promoted into executive roles. We have to keep challenging both women and men to examine their unconscious biases about who can be an effective leader. We must also continue to push for more women on corporate boards who will hopefully push for more women to be considered for CEO roles, and we need to elect women to office where they can raise these issues legislatively. Let’s keep asking, “Where are the women?”   Photo courtesy of Vector Open Stock (CC BY 2.0)]]>

Why We Need More Women on Corporate Boards

The wealth gap in the United States is outrageous, as highlighted previously by the Occupy Wall Street movement and progressive Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The pay of corporate CEOs continues to skyrocket, even when their companies underperform, while millions of citizens struggle to earn a living wage. The earnings of the middle class have been in steep decline, but corporate boards approve ever-increasing compensation packages for CEOs. I always assumed that if more women were on corporate boards, there would be a reversal of this trend—but new research shows the opposite. While past studies show that having more women on boards is good for company performance, Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times reports that according to a new study, “companies with greater gender diversity on their boards paid their chief executives about 15 percent more than the compensation dispensed by companies with less diverse boards.” Why might this surprising trend be happening? Morgenson notes that while no one knows for sure, some experts point to the following possible causes:

  • Relatively few women (roughly 20 percent) serve on corporate boards, and those who do may feel pressured to go along with the “vote yes” culture of most boards in order to keep their seats.
  • The board compensation committee determines CEO pay, and women do not commonly serve on these committees, much less as chairwomen. Morgenson notes that last year, only two out of ten committee chairs of the most diverse boards were women.
  • The same women directors often hold multiple positions. Morgenson notes that nearly one-quarter of women directors at S&P 500 companies held multiple board seats compared to 19 percent of men. This group of women might be sought after because they do not rock the boat.
Many qualified women with C-Suite experience have not been tapped to serve on corporate boards. It seems likely that a larger proportion of women on boards will create space for more women to join together to resist the “culture of yes” and help bring CEO pay back to more reasonable levels. Token representation makes it difficult to speak out. Let’s keep pushing for more women on boards.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Benjamin Child.    ]]>