Lately the topic of leadership has been occupying my thoughts and research in many ways. As the mother of two daughters and one son, and grandmother to three very young girls and one very young boy, I am increasingly examining leadership emergence and development through a gender lens. Therefore when I came upon the March 16, 2018 article entitled Picture a Leader. Is She a Woman? - The New York Times, I was eager to read it and ponder the findings. The subtitle first caught my attention: “Most people will draw a man."
Tom Kiefer, researcher at the University of Warwick, stumbled across his findings quite by accident. While working with a group of executives who did not speak much English, he engaged them in this exercise -- picture and draw a leader, and ascribe characteristics to the leader. He found, to his surprise, that even if the executives drew a neutral stick-figure, the language describing the leader and leadership characteristics identified the stick-figure as male, rather than female or gender neutral. (More curious, though, many clients insisted that when they claimed “he” they actually meant “both he and she.” Clearly, though, they were picturing a male.) This led Kiefer and other researchers to investigate this question: “How might holding unconscious assumptions about gender affect people’s abilities to recognize emerging leadership?”
What they found, in a study of the Academy of Management Journal was this, (and many women, myself included, have experienced this) -- “getting noticed as a leader in the workplace is more difficult for women than for men. Even when a man and a woman were reading the same words off a script, only the man’s leadership potential was recognized.”
In examining the study described above, the findings concluded that “speaking up promotively, but not prohibitively, is positively and indirectly related to leader emergence via status, and that this relationship is conditional on the gender of the speaker. Specifically, men who spoke up promotively benefited the most in terms of status and leader emergence, not only compared to men who spoke up prohibitively, but also compared to women who spoke up promotively. This research extends our understanding of the outcomes of voice by articulating how it impacts one's place in his or her group's social structure and ultimately whether he or she is seen as a leader. We also add to our understanding of leader emergence by suggesting that talking a lot or participating at a high level in a group may not be enough to emerge as a leader - it also depends how you do it and who you are.” In essence, speaking up to promote the ideas of a team or group (but not disparaging the ideas) is important, but equally important is “who you are.”
In another study conducted at a leadership recognition competition at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, men were again perceived as leaders over women simply for speaking up. “Women did not gain status for speaking up, and subsequently were less likely (much less) to be considered leaders.” Men were also seen as leaders when they “took charge.” Women did not enjoy these advantages, and researchers attributed this to the “backlash effect,” a negative response to female assertiveness. Researchers hypothesized that women fared less well because raters were comparing the competitors to prototypes that they already carried in their minds -- i.e., men being visualized as leaders. Even when women outshone men in intelligence, organization, and level-headedness these perceptions persisted. The lens of stereotype had allowed the confirmation bias to set in.
So, as I ruminated on this article, I began to wonder, how can we help our girls, and all of us, to break these stereotypes? I came up with a few suggestions, and I hope to hear more from all of you:
As always, I welcome your thoughts. Together we grow.
Past President, WATG
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think.