10 prejudices about female leadership

Human Resources

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Some people like to claim that the glass ceiling has been well and truly shattered. Top jobs are no longer inaccessible to women and the successful female CEO is now a reality in the business world. Nevertheless, they are still the exception rather than the rule, with women holding only a small percentage of the top jobs. In Belgium, only 22% of the members of corporate boards are women and in 76% of the organization, only one or no female is in the management committee. If the glass ceiling really has been broken, then what is preventing the majority of women from actually reaching the top?


 1. The prejudice about the ideal leader

Companies often presume that women don’t have the required leadership style and therefore aren’t good leaders. Meta-analyses, however, show that the men and women’s styles aren’t all that different. Moreover, women often use a more effective style than men. Women make use of a more transformational kind of leadership style, which means they involve their employees in their vision. So why doesn’t this take more women to the top?

2. The prejudice about the ideal woman

Effective leadership is obviously about more than just displaying the right behavior for a promotion. However, behavior is wherein lies the difference in expectations about men and women. Managerial roles are primarily associated with stereotypically ‘male’ characteristics, and therefore, women are expected to behave in a particularly ‘male’ way to be eligible for promotion. However, when they do, they are no longer fulfilling their traditionally-expected gender role (see ‘the ideal woman’). This gives rise to negative reactions in their environment (and sometimes even themselves). Thus, for women this is a catch-22 situation.

3. The prejudice that you must always be available or reachable

Companies aren’t gender neutral. You only need to look at words used in job descriptions, where terms like “tough” and “aggressive” predominate. You won’t often come across words like “sweet” or “empathic”. Jobs themselves only assess what happens at work, not someone’s private life. However, the more someone invests in their private life, the more it’s perceived in the workplace as a threat to the job. Since women often also have more onerous household responsibilities, this does not always sit well with the notion of the perfect employee. Moreover, more women than men move to part-time working once they have children.

4. The prejudice that women lack ambition

The fact that more women work part-time to be also able to take care of their children leads to the prejudice that young women are less ambitious. A woman may go as far as to explicitly state her ambition to continue working full-time or not to have children, but even expressing ambition is judged negatively. Hence as this is therefore rarely stated explicitly, the prejudice persists that women only want to work part-time and are less ambitious. The fact that mothers are not considered ambitious is not only due to their greater inclination towards part-time work. Fathers are also considered less ambitious than their child-free male counterparts. Parents in the workplace may be perceived to take a different approach to relationships, and one which is at odds to that traditionally expected of a manager.

5. The prejudice that women lack connections

In general, women are better at networking than men. They are more central within networks, and the quality of the relationships they forge is a little better. However, men and women both tend to network more with people of the same sex. This ends up creating two groups in a company. The more women are included in the male network, the more influence and promotions[1] they gain. The most successful women consciously network in diverse groups. This could point to women needing more connections to receive a promotion.

6. The prejudice that diversity is good

Several studies suggest that companies with more women in top management functions post better financial results. However, when we widen the focus from looking solely at senior managers to include middle managers as well, the situation is less clear-cut. The results depend on the growth orientation and the type of organization culture. Organizations which have a growth strategy seem to benefit from the new insights and creativity which come with diversity, resulting in an increased market share. With regard to corporate culture, it’s important to create an open atmosphere. This helps to overcome the barriers to diversity such as cliques and discrimination.

7. The prejudice that a supportive environment works

A ‘female’ corporate culture – in which positive feedback and support are central – is preferred by women in non-management positions. A ‘male’ culture – of work pressure and competition – forms a barrier to women who want to advance through the company hierarchy. In a ‘female’ culture, more female non-managers aspire to become managers. For those in middle and top management positions, things are less clear-cut. Here, they also indicate that they want to maintain a healthy work-life balance, which is often at odds with the currently-prevailing culture in higher-ranking management jobs. Despite many companies’ attempts to help their employees maintain a reasonable work-life balance , thus maintaining ‘female’ management values, these ‘male’ values continue to predominate in management. Hence ‘male’ management values continue to thrive at the top even in a ‘female’ environment.

8. The prejudice that greater diversity is bad for business

Diversity can have a positive effect on an organization, but in real life, management evaluate diversity at group level, which can cause individual differences to go unnoticed, undervalued, and unused. Moreover, a group’s added value is often determined by their level of productivity and compliance with power.

What’s more, women at the top don’t necessarily help other women to get to the top. Research has shown that female professors judge female doctorands more negatively than they do their male counterparts. They perceive them as less committed, for example. One explanation put forward for this phenomenon is that female professors had to adopt ‘male’ values to achieve success. This female-to-female discrimination could damage measures taken to counteract bias against women.

9. The prejudice that a diversity policy is unnecessary

In the past, you might have got away with saying that there was a limited supply of highly-educated women wanting to get into top jobs anyhow. However, over the past 25 years, the number of highly-educated women has risen sharply. The number of top jobs available has not diminished appreciably either, so you would expect the number of women in top jobs to have risen. Nevertheless, the number of women in top jobs is lower than expected. Women get left behind when it comes to promotions. A good diversity policy is necessary!

10. The prejudice that positive action is good

To guarantee diversity, companies often implement a so-called ‘positive action’ policy. This means that in a company with a gender imbalance, in the event of two equally strong candidates being available for a given position, a woman will be chosen instead of a man. The problem here is that this policy alone won’t necessarily bring about a change to corporate culture. Minorities are often scared of the repercussions they face from the dominant group in situations where positive action has been implemented. In the short term, positive action is efficient, but in the longer term a more wide-ranging (cultural) transformation is needed from organizations.


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Instituut voor de Gelijkheid van Vrouwen en Mannen.
Heilman, M. E., & Okimoto, T. G. (2008). Motherhood: A potential souce of bias in employment decision. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93 (1), 189-198

Brass, D. J. (1985). Men’s and Women’s Networks – a Study of Interaction Patterns and Influence in an Organization, Acadmey of Management Journal, 28 (2): pp. 327-343
Ellemers, N., Heuvel, H. v. d., Gilder, D. d., Maass, A., & Bonvini, A. (2004). The underrepresentation of women in science: Differential commitment or the queen bee syndrome? British Journal of Social Psychology, 43 , 315-338
Dudley, R. (2007). The Equity Supply Chain: Is it the Cause of So Few Women in Management and Leadership Position? 25th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society. The System Dynamics Society: Boston, MA, USA.