Are Female Leaders Judged Differently?

12/10/2016 16:45 | Updated 13 October 2016
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What do François Hollande's shoes tell us about his personality? Do they express his "je ne sais quoi" fashion flair? Or EU President, Jean-Claude Juncker's, foot apparel? Do we care? Well apparently we do, although the shoe appears to 'fit' much more for Theresa May and her much speculated-about penchant for footwear, than for her male counterparts.

A quick internet search reveals just one story pontificating on Mr Hollande's shoes, or rather his single pair according to the piece, while disappointingly nothing appears about Mr Juncker's sartorial expressions.

Search instead for 'Theresa May and shoes' and be prepared for a virtual footwear avalanche. 'Heel, Boys' headlined the Sun newspaper last month with a picture of Theresa May's foot ensconced in a particularly 'fetching' leopard skin shoe.

Female leaders appear to pose a conundrum for observers, perhaps their rarity forms part of their curiosity, with any sightings leading to a frenzy of scrutiny. Their hair, outfit, the way they hold themselves, their voice, and even how much (or little) they smile are brutally dissected?

Similarities are also drawn between female leaders, which would be seen as ridiculous if levelled at a man. Theresa May, Angel Merkel, Hilary Clinton and Nicola Sturgeon are all said to model a 'pob' (a so-called 'political' bob) hairstyle. This is despite the fact that each woman's hair is quite distinct. Theresa May has also been coined 'England's Angela Merkel' or 'Britain's Merkel' by the German media, seemingly due to her gender rather than having anything else in common.

Do we pore over male leaders with this same forensic examination? Or are female leaders judged differently due to a combination of conscious and unconscious bias? I think you can already surmise the answer.

A Catalyst study asked senior-level executives to judge the effectiveness of female and then male leaders on ten leadership behaviours. It reported that both male and female respondents rated women as better at stereotypically feminine 'caretaking skills,' such as supporting and rewarding; while both men and women said that men excel at more conventionally masculine 'taking charge' skills such as influencing superiors and delegating responsibility.

"It is often these taking charge skills - the stereotypically 'masculine' behaviours - that are seen as prerequisites for top-level positions," said Jeanine Prime, author of the study and senior vice president research at Catalyst.

Most alarmingly, men in the study considered women to be less adept at problem-solving, one of the qualities most commonly associated with effective leadership. Since men far outnumber women in top management positions, this 'male-held' stereotype dominates current corporate thinking and may go some way to explaining why women hold just 21.2% of board seats in the largest publicly listed companies in the EU.

In fact, our study found that gender is not a reliable predictor of how a person will lead.

Women today may view gender stereotypes as a significant barrier to their advancement, much more so than men. This is most likely because female leaders can often find themselves in a 'double bind', meaning that if women act in ways consistent with gender stereotypes they are viewed as less competent leaders (too soft), however if they act in ways that are inconsistent with such stereotypes they're seen as unfeminine (too tough).

Recently, on Twitter, a woman tweeted me saying that she is much nicer in the workplace than normally. I found it funny and sad at the same time. She obviously has to change her normal behaviour to fit in with the stereotypes associated with the gender.

I am often asked: "Why are women at the top so tough, not friendly?" My answer is three-fold: (1) Maybe she's just not friendly - why do we assume because she's a woman she must have the stereotypical traits associated with her gender?; (2) What stereotypes are alive and well in your organisation that keep the status quo (often trickling down from the dominant group) in place?; and (3) Are you judging men in the same way?

Companies must act to break this cycle, which is holding back women and holding back business. For instance, they need to introduce checks and balances to safeguard against stereotyping and educate managers - including both men and women - that stereotypes are not "truths cast in stone."

At the present time, the harsh judgements that face woman at the top are seemingly par for the course, but it's up to individuals and organisations to call out this sexist behaviour for what it is.

We applaud these courageous women who are now leading our countries, our businesses and in the public sector, as well as for their stoicism, in the face of these often very personal attacks. These women are powerful role models who are paving the way for the next generation of women who are already hard on their heels.