Researcher Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic recently rejected the popular advice of “leaning in” for women* looking to scale the professional ladder. It’s not that women are unconsciously holding themselves back from leadership opportunities, as Sheryl Sandburg so famously theorized in her TED talk and subsequent book.
But, this advice only works for women aren’t actively pursuing higher roles and greater responsibilities.
The reality is more that even when women are advocating for themselves, they are less likely to be seen as having the qualities of a leader. This widespread gender bias isn’t news: Pantene and some partners even released a feel-good commercial that capitalized on calling out how assertive women are “bossy” and borderline competent men are seen as “the boss.”
As Chamorro-Premuzic explains, the fact that our culture has so closely adhered to the belief that these characteristics are “masculine” is more likely what holds high-performing women back. Even if they are better than their competition, even other women will often not evaluate them fairly because of how they have internalized our culture’s apparent blindness to women’s ability to be “the boss.”
But then, even some masculine-identifying or preforming people who are inferior in their technical skills could be afforded afforded many professional benefits because of the implicit bias we carry into business spaces that favors “masculine” traits. For example, “male-performing” assertive people may get credit for a quieter colleague’s work.
Where Chamorro-Premuzic’s editorial gets really interesting is when they reject the idea that women and other minorities need to over-compensate for their marginalization and try to join the good ol’ boys club.
He explains, “If our solution is to train women to emulate the behavior of men… we may end up increasing the representation of women in leadership without increasing the quality of our leaders. In this scenario, women will have to out-male males in order to advance in an inherently flawed system where bad guys (and gals) win. Unless our goal is to make it easier for incompetent women to succeed – much as it is for men – there is little to gain from this approach.”
As I’ve said before: Being a leader is a gender-neutral act, (spoiler: so are all actions!); the sooner that we can accept that coding behavior as “masculine” or “feminine” only serves to obscure people’s actual contributions, the better.
Removing these archaic labels allows the real competencies of professionals to be evaluated — for their benefit, and their organization’s benefit.
For now, organizations that make conscious efforts to level the playing field (like the National Association of Realtors’ restructure leading to half of their leadership team being women) are the primary answer as our culture shifts to a more aware environment.
*Though the referenced article and study perpetuate a binary gender structure, for the purposes of our discussion in this article, I expand its “diversity” to include femme-identified individuals, nonbinary and trans workers, and anybody else that does not benefit from traditional notions of power that place cisgendered men at the top of the social totem pole