The popular opinion is that unconscious bias against women as leaders — by the mostly male establishment — is keeping women out of the executive suite. But that simple explanation misses the mark.
We conducted, researched and released findings in March that analyzed 360-degree assessments of 857 women and 857 men from upper-level management in six companies based in the United States, Western Europe and Australia. The women and men were matched in terms of age, experience, tenure, management level and functional area. We systematically studied the presence of bias using two well-accepted statistical procedures, and then we looked at real differences in behavior.
First, not only were the ratings not biased against women, there was actually some bias in favor of them. Women who demonstrated little strategic thinking and empowerment weren’t penalized as much as the men who were lacking in these areas. It seems that coworkers cut these women some slack, or perhaps were reluctant to tell them these shortcomings undermined their effectiveness.
Second, and perhaps more important, the analysis identified gender differences in leadership behavior that may better explain why so few women make it to the top. Women led with a more forceful and operational style, one associated with the tactical management of execution, whereas men led with a more strategic and empowering style associated with organizational leadership. Essentially, women are more likely to get bogged down in details and can push too hard for results.
To some readers — and the women who receive such feedback — this can be infuriating. Many women are told they are “too aggressive” and/or “not strategic enough.” And this is often interpreted as gender bias. But bear with us: We are highly supportive of helping more women reach the top. And we believe that taking the lack of statistical evidence of bias seriously reveals some promising strategies to achieve this goal.
Why would it be that more women are forceful operators than strategic enablers? In our experience coaching women and advising global corporations on diversity issues, we see a pattern we call, “the new double-bind.” Women often carve out a niche for themselves as the go-to person their bosses can count on to deliver. They dig in and bear down to get things done. And in positions of little formal authority, and with the best of intentions to achieve their bosses’ goals, they may push people and can be intensely focused. These women get boxed in, seen as “reliable doers” instead of “strategic thinkers” who can bring others along.
Consider the following scenario, for example. Take high-potential Annie. She’s articulate, multilingual and known for her laser-focus on results. After making the rounds through a number of support roles, she is hired into the communications function at global headquarters. Her international awareness and excellent communications skills make it a natural fit.
What Annie finds, however, is that she is charged with unifying global branding policies but has no authority to get her colleagues in Spain, Hong Kong, Australia, and elsewhere to comply. With entrenched points of view in far-flung lands, Annie struggles to gain global alignment. Endless conference calls are not getting her any closer to agreement, and her frustration shows. She finds herself constantly at odds with colleagues in the disparate regions. Her intensity and relentless push for the new policies result in her being seen as “too demanding,” and many feel she does not understand what drives their business. In two years’ time, when she wants to take on a larger role, she will find that people think she is too aggressive, lacks peer support and is not business savvy.
There are several things organizations and women can do to avoid this common trap:
- Ensure that young female talent is given the same opportunities to develop broad experiences associated with strategic leadership skills, like cross-functional, cross-cultural assignments with P&L responsibility in both down and up markets. In most organizations, men get these assignments far more often than women. The pernicious gender bias that certainly does exist probably has a stronger compound effect here, where women miss out on critical developmental experiences.
- Be clear about what it means to be strategic. It’s usually a know-it-when-you-see it concept, but it needs to be specified in concrete, observable and learnable terms if aspiring leaders, especially women, are to cultivate it.
- Make sure women get the developmental feedback they need, particularly about deficiencies in the strategic and empowering areas and, conversely, about overdoing it in the tactical and forceful areas. Many managers shy away from giving tough feedback to women because they don’t want to appear sexist. But these are precisely the things women are rated worse on but that are sought after when filling executive roles.
Women who aspire to senior leadership should:
- Be more proactive and intentional about a career path that will lead to senior leadership. Aggressively seek out the aforementioned learning experiences that are associated with strategic leadership skills development.
- Be wary of overplaying to strengths and taking on support roles associated with implementation of someone else’s vision. Ask to be part of strategy sessions, and seek out mentors who have a knack for strategic thinking.
- Seek feedback on the ability to bring people along. Ask for advice on how results can be accomplished with a different approach, and learn a diverse array of influence techniques.
- Signal the capacity for strategic thinking by elevating comments beyond tactical concerns about implementation to also include market conditions, competitor moves, changes in technology and regulation, and the connection between initiatives and strategic priorities.
There are many reasons women are seen as forceful operators, and there are many actions companies and individuals can take to develop more women into strategic enablers. Based on our systematic study, we don’t think women are kept out of leadership because of simple bias. The problem is more likely due to gender differences in behavior.
We suspect a major reason more women aren’t in top jobs is because they get trapped in execution roles; the new double-bind is getting rewarded for being a reliable doer at the expense of becoming a strategic thinker. In other words, the smoking gun probably isn’t unconscious bias in the backroom where promotions get decided. More likely, the smoking gun can be found several years earlier when women were denied the cross-functional, cross-cultural, up-cycle/down-cycle, line jobs, and other diverse developmental assignments in their career paths.
The situation can be remedied through training, feedback and by taking deliberate steps to get young women into career paths where they can develop strategic-thinking skills and learn more effective forms of soft influence.
Wanda Wallace is president and CEO of Leadership Forum Inc. Robert B. Kaiser is president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions and author of “Fear Your Strengths.” To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.