Blog | Entrepreneurship

Why Do So Few Women Lead?

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Do females pull back when they should “lead in”?

I came across an intriguing article in Time Magazine about Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. Sandberg has a unique take on women in business and I would love your comments and opinions on the subject.

The Facebook CEO says that women are still such a minority when it comes to being leaders in the business world.

The statistics in the article state:

  • Of the 195 heads of states, only 17 are women.
  • Women hold about 20% of all seats in parliament globally.
  • Just over 4% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women.
  • 17% of board seats are held by women. (Interestingly, that percentage is up only 3% in the last ten years.)

Why is this?

Do Women Pull Back?

Sheryl’s premise is that we women are partially to blame. In other words, we do it to ourselves. Social norms, for lack of a better word, are also to blame. She writes, “From the moment they are born, boys and girls are treated differently. Women internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men – and pull back when we should lean in.” (Sandberg has just released a book titled Lean In.)

In her view, women need to set their sights higher, have more confidence in their skills and talents and spend less time on housework and child care. (And the men in their lives need to spend more time on housework and child care.)

A Revealing Experiment

One of the most revealing pieces in this article is an experiment conducted in 2003 with two groups of college students. Both groups were given the same case study to read about a successful real-life entrepreneur. The entrepreneur’s name was Heidi Roizen. One group read Heidi’s story. The other group read the same story with just one difference – the name was changed from Heidi to Howard.

Here were the findings. When asked about what they read the students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent. But Howard was seen as more appealing and likeable. Heidi came across as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”

The bottom line of this experiment shows that success and likability go hand-in-hand for men. For women, her likability goes down as her success goes up. As Sandberg says, “Female accomplishments come at a cost. And that cost is people declining to click on the Like button.”

Think about the successful women you know or know of.

Is there is different set of criteria you evaluate them by versus a man with the same level of success?

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, made the headlines recently for returning to her job just two weeks after giving birth to her daughter. She received quite a bit of flack for that. That doesn’t happen for a new father. Why? Because society tells us that women are supposed to be nurturing and not so work-driven.

Next time you are in a discussion about a highly successful woman, listen to the words people use to describe her. Do they say she’s “too aggressive”, “not liked by those she works with” or “she’s in it for herself”? Or do they simply see a highly-accomplished person?

The Dreaded “E” Word

One other story - Wendi Goldsmith, the CEO and entrepreneur of Bioengineering Group, in Salem, Massachusetts, came face-to-face with the successful female gender bias when, after building a successful company, decided to post her profile on an online dating service.

She put down as her profession “geologist and entrepreneur.”

How many responses did she receive? Zero.

So what did she do? She removed one word from her profile – entrepreneur – and her response rate soared. Wendi said, "Men want the warm, fuzzy woman and not the one they think wields a hatchet. Many men are uncomfortable with, intimidated by, and ill equipped to handle a powerful woman. People assume that those with power aren't necessarily nice, and women are supposed to be nice."

Fast forward, Wendi did not end up with anyone from the online service. Instead she is married today to a man she had met years earlier. The twist? Her husband, Brian, had no idea when they first started dating how successful Wendi’s company was. He said, "If I had known she was a successful entrepreneur, I would have been a little intimidated and unsure about pursuing her romantically."

Your Thoughts Please

Is this crazy equation of a successful woman not being equal to a likable, popular woman, at the root of why there is such a lack of female business leaders today?

Have we fallen prey to the myth that women are less assertive and less driven than men? That women are supposed to be “nice”, “nurturing” and “supportive” and anything less than that labels us “selfish”, “cold” and “not to be trusted”?

And are we passing this bias onto our children, both consciously and subconsciously? Are we teaching our daughters, nieces and granddaughters to be future leaders or to be polite?

Or is all of this just an excuse women can use to not lead? Or does this success/likability awareness inspire you to take on a bigger role in life?

I don’t have the answer. I’m simply asking the questions.

I welcome your comments.

Please provide your thoughts below.

For more of Kim’s insights on financial freedom for women, check out her resources here.

Original publish date: March 21, 2013

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