For more than half a century, hundreds of research papers have been published on the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions. Most of them conclude that discrimination and prejudice are the main causes of this imbalance, and high level policies have been implemented to try to rectify this. without much result. The gap between male and female leaders in political, business and cultural circles is still stubbornly stuck at about the same level.
In fact, research indicates that while women’s representation in the workforce has increased dramatically over the past 60 years (from 37% to 57%), they are still underrepresented at the upper levels of the workforce. Only 28% of CEOs in the US are women and only 6.2% of CEOs of the S&P 500 are women. In the top 50 universities in North America, the gender imbalance increases dramatically towards the top of the leadership pyramid, reaching 61.5% at the dean’s level. At the same time, in the cultural sphere, only 13.7% of Hollywood film directors are women.
Thus, the gender imbalance among leaders resisted attempts at affirmative action policies that were announced with great fanfare during this period. This prolonged situation runs counter to the moral and economic sense. On the first point, gender inequality is considered by the United Nations and scholars to be “the greatest human rights challenge of our time”. Regarding the second, a growing body of evidence points to better financial performance for companies where more women hold positions of responsibility, such as in the private equity sector.
What about gender gaps in aspirations?
If correcting prejudice and discrimination over the past six decades has not solved this problem, is there another, more nuanced side to this story? After six years of research—led by this article’s authors, Leah Sheppard (Washington State University) and Tatiana Palushkina (Franklin University Switzerland) and published in September by the Journal of Professional Behavior—they discovered that, in addition to the well-documented effect of bias and discrimination, differences in ambition between men may be It is women who perpetuate this gender gap in leadership.
The two women analyzed 174 studies—representing nearly 140,000 American participants over the past 60 years—that compare the aspirations of men and women for leadership positions. Their results show significant gender differences in favor of men, which did not change significantly over time. Through their study, we also found that the industrial sector is important: while the gender aspiration gap is found in female-dominated fields such as education and health, it is much larger in male-dominated mixed fields such as business and politics. Finally, the gender aspiration gap widens at post-secondary education age.
From these results, they created an eight-level hierarchical simulation that predicts leadership emergence based on aspirations. Their results showed that the highest level 8 had 2.13 males for every female. We also found that gender gaps are almost zero at secondary school age, but jump at post-secondary age, from 1.11 in Level 1 to 2.26 in Level 8.
Understanding gender differences
In our study—which includes research from the fields of sociology, economics, psychology, law, and management—we suggest that differences may arise because of a process called self-stereotyping, in which individuals internalize their own gender stereotypes and voluntarily conform to gender norms.
For women, this means internalizing more of a societal stereotype, which leads them to see themselves as different from the typical leader. Therefore, they aspire to leadership positions to a lesser extent than their male counterparts. On the other hand, men may see themselves as conforming to the male agent stereotype, meaning they have more control over themselves and others, which also fits the stereotype that many leaders have.
Differential treatment of women
Of course, we do not exclude the possibility that there are other reasons explaining the differences in aspirations between the sexes here. For example, previous research has indicated that when women enter the workforce, they experience differential treatment in that they are given less challenging tasks and training opportunities, while managers seem to devote more time and effort to nurturing potential male leaders, which can lead to differences in aspirations among females. man and woman.
It is also possible for women to feel overwhelmed by the pressure associated with a leadership position because they are simultaneously focusing on their family responsibilities.
Means of combating misalignment of aspirations
We suggest that it is best for organizations to support the aspirations of female leadership early in their careers. This can be done on two levels: Educational institutions can accelerate policies aimed at placing women in roles of power and expertise. They can increase the number of teachers in classrooms and highlight outstanding female leaders in case studies and reading lists. As for industries, they can play a pivotal role by implementing early programs that match women to female role models, increasing the visibility of women leaders in the workplace, and developing and encouraging family-friendly policies. Taking on less formal leadership roles, such as on team projects.
Many of the current programs aimed at increasing women’s participation in leadership are well-intentioned initiatives aimed at improving conditions for recruitment and promotion. But business leaders need to ask themselves whether women really want these leadership positions. Researchers must reveal the reasons for their hesitation.
A call for more academic research on ambition
Indeed, our meta-analysis reveals the relative paucity of research articles examining differences in ambition as at least a partial explanation for the gender gap in leadership. This may be because revealing women’s relatively lower aspirations for leadership roles can be seen as politically incorrect. A 2020 paper co-authored by Bodour al-Shibli, for example, was retracted because it suggested that the influence of female researchers benefits more from male mentorship than from female mentorship.
Therefore, the role of aspiration in gender balance has not received sufficient academic attention. However, this often overlooked area deserves more attention to encourage integrative approaches to narrow the gender gap in leadership – to the benefit of all parties.
Ekaterina Nechaeva is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management and Human Resources at HEC Paris.
Daniel Brown is the Chief Communications Editor at HEC.
Translated article from Forbes US – Author: HEC Paris Insights
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