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Why are there so few women leaders when they are so great? Searching for what’s behind the numbers

May 29, 2017


I am puzzled by all the data that confirms that women are great leaders of both large and small organizations, yet so few of us really run anything unless we start the business ourselves. I want to pull the curtain back and see what forces—visible and invisible—are working against us. I want to know what is really happening in the workplaces of our world’s most successful companies to see if it's any different for women there than in average companies.


In researching just how women leaders are doing today, what I discovered is that they are generally out-performing the male peers, but their opportunities are much more limited. If business is supposed to be a rational model, this makes no sense. Why would companies not want to elevate and innovate in their businesses? Here’s what I have found:

2017 is considered to be a banner year for women in leadership. There are currently 27 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, the most in history. While many are touting this great step forward for women in leadership, others point to the fact that women still only represent 5.4% of the total number of Fortune 500 CEOs.


The irony of this statistic is found in the fact that there is a growing body of research that proves that female leadership is actually good for the bottom line. In 2015, Fortune produced a study showing that the 51 female CEOs leading Fortune 1000 companies from 2002-2014 produced equity returns 226% better than the entire male-led S&P 500.


More recently, in 2016 the EY professional services firm and the Peterson Institute for International Economics released a report showing that companies with at least 30% of leadership positions filled by women had profit margins 6% higher than companies without women in leadership.  

With all of this data on the side of female leadership and more and more awareness being brought to gender bias, discrimination, and the glass ceiling effect, why are the numbers still so lopsided? What else is standing in the way of women’s ascent to the corner office?

The answer is likely hiding in our collective subconscious.


Although the statistics about the benefits of having women in leadership positions are well known, there is still both conscious—and more often, subconscious—bias that inhibits the promotion of more female leaders.


This bias is dangerous because it is often hidden under the surface and we don’t even realize it’s there. And it’s not just men, but also women, who perpetuate these ideas.


One such bias has been documented by Dr. Theresa Welbourne at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan as the “Women ‘Take Care,’ Men ‘Take Charge’” effect.

Dr. Welbourne’s study finds that there is significant gender stereotyping in senior managers’ evaluations of both male and female leaders in the United States and abroad. She found that in a panel composed of 296 corporate leaders (128 men, 168 women), respondents perceived that women leaders were more effective than men at “‘caretaker’ behaviors such as supporting others and rewarding subordinates.” On the flipside, the general perception was that men are more effective at “‘take charge’ behaviors such as delegating and problem-solving.” The study also finds that although these are widely held perceptions, they are not necessarily supported by research on actual leadership behavior.


This bias often turns up in the statistics around the roles that women most often hold in corporations. A global study by Credit Suisse, for example, showed that women have a significantly larger representation in service-oriented roles like human and public relations than in operational and legal roles.  And it is much more likely that someone be promoted to the highest levels of corporate leadership from an operational or legal role than from a service role.


Another widely studied bias is manifested as what is known as the “Glass Cliff.”

If you are unfamiliar with the term, it was coined in 2005 following a study by two British professors from Exeter University, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam. Their research found that women were actually more likely to be appointed to leadership roles during times of crisis, when the risk of failure is highest. Subsequent studies found this to be the case in a wide range of professions; women tend to be called in for riskier operations because of what Ryan and Haslam describe as a perception that women are better “people” managers because they are more nurturing, creative, and intuitive.  


If we really look closely, we are likely to find that even the most feminist of us holds some of these beliefs under the surface, due to decades of cultural programming that tells us that men and women are innately different. The “women to the rescue” and “women as multitaskers” mentality is pervasive in our society.


Interestingly, this year a Talentful study came out that revealed that male and female CEOs actually have very similar backgrounds in terms of education and workforce experience. However, it also found that, while women are graduating with higher education degrees in record numbers, they are still disproportionately represented in the degree programs that this study shows produce the most corporate leaders: engineering and MBAs. A Fortune study points to the fact that many women interested in math and science are encouraged to become doctors or lawyers, documenting a statistic that only 2% of parents believe that engineering is an appropriate field for a daughter, another hidden bias in our society.


At A Million SMART Women we care about bringing female leaders to the forefront of global business and affairs. And we are also keen to understand the role that conscious and subconscious bias play in female leadership so that we can shine a light on it.


Because stories cannot grow in the light.


We care about how work environments as a whole value and foster women’s leadership. What’s going on behind the numbers that affects the daily lives of millions of women is what is most important to us.


We are curious to know: is it any different for a middle- or entry-level woman working in a female-led company than in a male-led company? If so, how? And also, what are the companies out there that are getting it right, balancing a value-based business model with growing profit margins and a workplace culture that values women and truly pits her as an equal?


Over the course of the next few months we will be taking a deeper look at some of the companies on the Fortune 500 list, as well as some small and medium-sized enterprises and nonprofits to see just how much of an effect male vs. female leadership has on corporate culture AND to highlight and celebrate the ones that are hitting home runs, sharing them as an example for others to follow.


If you or someone that you know is working for a wonderful organization and would be willing to sit down with us for an interview, let us know!  You can email us at: info@willmarre.com


Mandy Sciacchitano is a Diet Freedom and Self Love Coach and Copyeditor for A Million Smart Women



Female Fortune 500 CEOs Are Poised to Break This Record in 2017

New Proof that More Female Bosses Equals Higher Profits

Women-Led Companies Perform Three Times Better Than the S&P 500

Women CEOs in the Forture 1000: By the Numbers

Women Joining But Not Leading Board Rooms Globally 

More Women Business Leaders Does Not Mean More Power

The Percentage of Women in Senior Roles is Slowly Growing Worldwide, But at This Pace We Won't Reach Parity for Decades

Women "Take Care," Men "Take Charge:" Stereotyping Of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed

Men Vs. Women-- The Most Powerful CEOs



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