“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu

During the US State of Women Michelle Obama sat down for a conversation with Oprah. The whole conversation was powerful but I was particularly struck when Michelle said the following: “I hear from some young women that they aren’t feeling the pains that many of our predecessors have felt. They say, ‘There aren’t any problems. Women’s rights – we’ve got it all figured out. I’m already equal.’ But just you wait. You’ll feel it.”

I was definitely one of those bright-eyed women who used to think that there was no such thing anymore as gender discrimination at work. Until I moved far enough up the ladder and realized that it was not a level playing field.

By the time I realized it, I had already run into some of the hidden obstacles on the labyrinthine path that women have to navigate to achieve leadership positions. And I am not talking about obstacles that make it hard for women to combine career & family. Instead, I am talking about the many pernicious obstacles that are hidden from plain sight and specifically hinder women, not men, as they try to navigate their path to leadership.

We’re not imagining it

In this post, I will not only explore these hidden obstacles to female leadership, but also provide empirical evidence for each of them. Why? Because too easily and often people dismiss the existence of these obstacles. Instead they believe these are fabrications of disgruntled women who don’t have what it takes to get to the top of the ladder.

No whining. Just helping to shine some light on the path ahead

One other thing to note — the goal here is not to whine or to shame and blame men. Most of these hidden obstacles to female leadership are the result of unconscious biases that guide people’s behavior and decisions in the work place. Nobody is doing any of this on purpose (more about that later).

Instead, the goal is to make more women aware of the very real hidden obstacles to female leadership they will have to overcome if they aspire to move up the ladder. As Sun Tzu told us, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” (Important note: the “enemy” here are the hidden obstacles and not the men in our lives. Again, this is not about shaming or blaming anyone.)

So in this first post we will focus on mapping out and explaining the obstacles, and in the following post we will then provide a survival guide about how to successfully navigate these obstacles, based on what we can learn from some of the successful female leaders who have successfully navigated them already.

Lastly, as a bonus, we hope this post may also gain support from the men in our lives, at work and at home, so we can work together to try and prevent these hidden, negative gender effects in the workplace as best we can.

The State of Women

Let’s start by understanding the lay of the land: What is the current state of women from a professional perspective?

  • No longer held back by limited education. Women now earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees, 60% of master’s degrees, 51% of PhDs, 49% of law degrees and 42% of MBAs. (2012-2013 Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics)
  • Significant increase in participation in the workforce. Since the late 19th century, women have moved a lot closer to equality. Overall, women now comprise 46% of all fulltime and part-time workers in the US (US Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012), up from just 20% in 1900.
  • There is still a gender pay gap, but it is smaller than you may think. However, it widens as you advance up the ladder. We’ve all heard about the gender wage gap, which states that the average pay gap across the whole US working population is 78% – i.e. on average US women earn $0.78 for every $1 that an average US man earns. However, the way this is calculated does not control for the variance in earning potential between industries and job types which women and men hold.
    PayScale, a compensation data and software company, did a study that controlled for that and evaluated the pay gap between men and women doing the same work. The good news is that their study suggested that the gender pay gap for men and women overall shrinks to 97 cents on the dollar when we compares pay between men and women who do the same work. However, it did show that the pay gap gets wider as women advance beyond managerial positions to 95.1% at the director level and 93.9% at the executive level.
  • Participation in the workforce is pretty equal between men and women up to the managerial level. After that, it falls of a cliff.
    According to the latest figures of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2015 women held 50% of management positions. However, women make up just 15 % of executive officers and 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs.

Note: The above are all US statistics. However, these statistics and trends are mirrored in most developed western economies.

Mapping Out The Hidden Obstacles To Female Leadership

So overall we are moving towards equality, yet gender equality is still far from being a reality when it comes to leadership. Below we outline the three main obstacles that are hindering women on their path to leadership. (Btw, they can be overcome, but that is the focus of next week’s post)

I. Unconscious biases

Try and answer this riddle:

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!

What was your answer? Did you suggest that the surgeon is the boy’s stepfather? Or that the boy was adopted? Or that the boy is the child of a male gay couple?

Or did you realize that the surgeon was his mother.

If you are like most of us, then you probably came up with one of the first 3 suggested answers because one of your mental associations with the word “surgeon” is that they are typically male.

In a similar way, even if you do not intend to discriminate against gender, many of us, men and women, still predominantly associate leaders with men and this guides us, subconsciously, in what we expect to see – i.e. in what we think a leader “should” be. As well as vice versa, what men “should” be.

These beliefs are what stereotypes are made of. They are mental pre-judgments that we have formed based on our experiences, either directly or indirectly through the media, about how certain groups of people are and should be. For example, because for so long our experiences have been predominantly with male leaders, we now perceive leadership as a masculine domain. Moreover, we have predominantly experienced women in the role of caretakers and thus when we think about or interact with women, then we automatically expect them to be that.

The tricky thing about stereotypes is that they automatically, unconsciously, heavily influence how we process information. Our brain uses it as a filter to take in and fully understand new information. For example, when you tried to understand the information provided by the riddle above, your brain used your own pre-existing stereotype about surgeons to help you come up with an answer. And as we saw, many of us answered wrongly.

This illustrates perfectly how the stereotypes we have about men, women, and leaders put us all at risk of discriminating against female leaders in the work place. That concept of a female leader is incongruous with our stereotype of what a leader should be and what a woman should be. As a result, we negatively judge such a woman on both counts. She fails our unconscious test of what a woman should be, as well as our test of what a leader should be. Hence we are likely to resist her leadership and dislike her as a woman.

This is exactly the double bind that Hillary Clinton needs to carefully navigate as she runs for president. She needs to meet both our test of what the ultimate leader, our president, looks like as well as fit our pre-existing models of what a woman should be. And historically those are incongruous as we associate leadership with the masculine domain.

Hence, none of the male presidential candidates have this problem. In fact, because they are men, we automatically assume that they can be leaders because our stereotype of leaders is that they are male.

These stereotypes REALLY affect our behavior towards women

Reading the above, some of you may have thought, “I know but I don’t act on my stereotypes. I really don’t discriminate.” The problem is that we all do, as we are not consciously aware of how our stereotypes influence our behavior, thinking and decision-making.

This is why some people continue to dismiss the existence of gender discrimination in the work place. Because they don’t consciously discriminate they think it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately stereotypes are unconscious and pernicious, even in those who don’t want to discriminate against women. And that is why I think it is good to illustrate the impact of stereotypes on how we behave towards women with some statistically sound evidence from the following studies:

  • A woman’s performance is rated lower compared to the performance of a man who performs at the same level.This effect was famously first illustrated in 1968 by the research of Philip Goldberg. He asked students to evaluate written essays. The essays were identical, except that for some the writer’s name signaled that it was written by a woman and for others that it was written by a man. The outcome of the experiment showed an overall bias against women: the same essay was scored lower if it was perceived to have been written by a woman. Since then, this research format has been repeated in many different contexts and the results have confirmed again and again that a woman’s performance is rated lower compared to the performance of a man who performs at the same level. For example, recently a group of researchers studied how 1.4 million coders were evaluated on GitHub. They found that before gender was revealed, coding submitted by women was considered to be better. However, once the gender of the coder was revealed, the acceptance rate for submissions by female coders dropped from 72% to 63%. (Emerson Murphy-Hill et alia, 2016)
  • Women in line jobs are penalized. Women in staff jobs are supported.Have you ever been struck by how women seem to disproportionately end up in staff roles such a human resources or legal, rather than in line functions such as sales? You may have thought that this is because women prefer and proactively choose those routes. However, research suggests that some darker forces are at work. A 2006 study by Karen S. Lyness and Madeleine E. Heilman showed that women in line jobs received on average a 9% lower performance rating than women in staff jobs. Moreover, they on average received performance ratings that were 6% lower than men in line jobs. These results suggest that women’s performance ratings are influenced by the perceived lack of fit between stereotypical communal attributes of women and the typical agentic requirements of line jobs. As a result, women in line functions are held back from succeeding in line functions, compared to their female counterparts in staff functions.
  • We are 6 times more likely to consider a man’s suggestion than a woman’s suggestion.It is no news that many women are frustrated by an inability to be heard by others. Hence the following findings may come as no surprise: researcher Kathleen Propp found that in group interactions, information introduced by men was six times more likely to influence the group decision than the same information introduced by women.
  • 33% of people still prefer a male boss.If there were no sex discrimination, then 100% of people would be indifferent to having either a female or male boss as they would not have preconceptions about differences between female and male bosses or leaders. However when people were asked in 2014 by the annual Gallup work and education poll “If you were taking a new job and had your choice of a boss, would you prefer to work for a man or a woman?” 33% of people still preferred a male boss. 46% were indifferent, and 20% preferred a female boss. So there is still a lot of remaining prejudice.

As stated in the intro, we are not writing this post to whine or to shame and blame men. Our reason for writing this post is to make more women aware of the very real hidden obstacles to female leadership they will have to navigate if they aspire to move up the ladder. Moreover, both men and women can be held accountable for the findings outlined above.

II. Mistaken beliefs

In addition to unconscious biases resulting from stereotypes about men, women and leaders, there have also been some misguided theories put out in the world that unfortunately have gained hold in the popular psyche.

One such theory was put forward and popularized by several evolutionary psychologists. They suggested that nature, through evolution, has endowed men with the specific qualities to succeed in leadership – i.e. leadership is in their genes. Similarly, they believe that nature has endowed women with the specific qualities to be the consummate caretakers, not leaders.
Let’s just be clear on this: There is NO genetic or other empirical evidence of this. Moreover, numerous extensive studies found no statistically significant differences when comparing men and women against what is in psychology called the Big Five Personality Traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness).

Instead, a much more plausible explanation for how women and men show up differently in this world is provided by the biosocial origin theory (also referred to as social role theory) presented by social psychologists Wendy Wood and Alice Eagly. Their theory suggests that psychological sex differences are driven by the types of roles filled by men and women within societies and groups. They argue, “Each sex develops behavioral tendencies that are appropriate for its typical role. These roles are not fixed and change over time”. This again suggests that there are no innate behavioral differences between men and women, but just learned ones driven by the cultural stereotypes that project how people believe males and females are supposed to act.

So don’t be misled: women and men both have what it takes to be leaders.

III. Company culture

The last hidden obstacle to female leadership I want to mention are the norms and practices that make up organizational culture – i.e. they way things are done in a company, which includes, how colleagues communicate, conduct their work and socialize.

Nowadays people tend to think of company culture as something that you proactively design and create. However, that is only half of the truth. Culture is definitely partly driven by the rules, policies and processes that are put in place to organize a work place. The other half results organically from the people in the organization. Over time they develop a “way of doing things” that becomes the norm.

So how is this a potential issue that could thwart the advancement of women in a company? It can be when that “way of doing things” is highly masculine and thereby exclusionary or disadvantageous for women.

Now What?

None of the above was shared to dishearten any of you aspiring, emerging or existing female leader. We firmly believe that knowing and understanding the lay of the land sets you up for success as you can now prepare yourself to successfully navigate these obstacles.

Check out our next post on how to successfully navigate and handle each of these obstacles.