There is bad news and good news for women: First, there are very few women in top-level leadership in government and business. Second, the situation is improving—but slowly. Based on a research presentation at the International Leadership Association meeting by noted social psychologist, Alice Eagly, here are the reasons that women lag behind in attaining high-level leadership positions.
1. Think Leader = Think Male. Our leadership prototypes tend to be more masculine (assertive, agentic) than feminine (communal, supportive). It’s no wonder then that males get selected for leadership positions more frequently than women.
2. The Double Bind. In order to succeed, many women leaders need to match both the masculine (be tough) and the feminine (be nice) stereotypes—a difficult challenge.
3. The Leader’s Life. Leadership at top levels is demanding and more suited to men (who shoulder much less of the household and child-rearing activities of the family) than to women. As a result, women either “fall off the track” to the top, have to take time out to have children, or forgo having kids in order to have top-level leadership careers.
4. Flat-Out Discrimination. There are deep-seated prejudices from those in power (mostly males) that prevent women from attaining leadership positions. Dr. Eagly uses the metaphor of the labyrinth that women, but not men, must navigate to make it to the top.
5. Self-Handicapping and Lack of Drive. Some women’s progress toward the top is stalled by their own lack of belief in their abilities and/or their lack of persistence in driving toward top positions. Many women begin to feel that it's not worth the effort to continue in "the labyrinth" and opt for less competitive careers.
The good news, however, is that the situation is changing, albeit slowly. For example, there have been modest gains in the percentage of women in top-level executive positions in business, and there are a record number of women in the U.S. Senate (20 vs. 80).
There is more good news: Our shift toward more team-based work environment are better suited to the communal, supportive styles of women leaders. Research has demonstrated that women have more transformational leadership qualities than do men, and there is good evidence that transformational leaders have more productive and more satisfied work groups.
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