Rethinking the “Problem” of Getting Women Into Leadership Roles


Getting more women into senior leadership roles… blah blah blah… we’ve all heard the stats (i.e., in the U.S. women hold fewer than 15% of executive officer roles, and just under 17% of Fortune 500 board seats). It’s an issue that gets all the lip service we could hope for… but are organizations making meaningful progress in the journey? Whether you’re a yay or a nay on the issue of progress, there is little debating that any progress we’re seeing is slow…and only questionably steady.

So what can organizations do to catalyze some meaningful and measurable change? Perhaps it’s less about the doing, and more about the thinking. How can we reframe the situation such that getting women into leadership roles is viewed as an actual competitive advantage, versus an achievement on some corporate diversity scorecard?

Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental stereotypes (fair or otherwise) that have historically plagued women, and consider how we might reframe them to build some inertia and get women moving through the pipelines.

Stereotype 1: Women can be indecisive

Truth: According to Gender Intelligence expert Barbara Annis, women do typically ask more questions and solicit a greater number of inputs before making a final decision. And yes – this practice, when exhibited, can be viewed as an obstruction to fast decision-making.

However, decisions made quickly but with incomplete information will get us only so far. There is incredible value in ensuring all angles have been considered, subject matter experts consulted, and those who will have to carry out any decisions are ready and on-board. So let’s find the happy medium between being fast and being thorough to ensure our best decisions are made!

Stereotype 2: Women can be emotional

Truth: David B. Schmitt. Ph.D. would argue that…maybe. Women and men experience and exhibit emotions differently. That’s likely not a surprise. And while women may be traditionally more visibly expressive of their emotions (hence the stereotypes), he argues in Psychology Today that “Women tend to be able to recognize and process the negative emotions of others better than men do.”
So what are the implications of this in business? This greater access to emotionality, to what some might describe as empathy, puts women in a position to better understand and even anticipate how customers experience our products and services. Empathy is a known critical enabler of Design Thinking, which, in turn, is a key driver of great innovation. Therefore, one might argue, that women have the potential to be greater drivers of innovation… something for which we’re all competing today.

Stereotype 3: Women are distracted with household responsibilities

Truth: According to the Pew Research Center, women are three times as likely as men to cite household and/or child-rearing responsibilities as putting limits on their career progression.

I recently heard an interview with the iconic artist and brand consultant, Debbie Millman on the Tim Ferriss podcast, and when asked the secrets of her success, one of her reflections was this: if you want something done right, give it to a busy person.

What if business leaders have gotten the paradigm wrong? What if instead of seeing women as too busy to be truly “committed” to the cause of work, they viewed women as having the burning need to be maximally efficient with their time? Whether by more effective multi-tasking, more efficient delegating and information-processing… let’s not assume that a busy woman has limited capacity to take on challenges. Let’s assume she will discover the means to manage that challenge with efficiency and grace – and see where that leaves us.

In conclusion, businesses letting old stereotypes hinder the progression of women through their leadership pipelines are missing out on an essential set of capabilities at the top. And I say it’s time to rethink old paradigms and let true gender diversity reign.