Women in leadership: beware the barriers

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The idea of a glass ceiling is real, but it shouldn't be thought of as glass and it's not really a ceiling. The term is an effort to conceptualize the barriers hindering women from reaching senior management positions, but research has shown that the "ceiling" is not just one obstacle, but multiple obstacles. Therefore, perhaps a more accurate word picture is that of a tangled web of trip hazards and barriers.

Let's jump right in by considering one of those barriers, the unfairness of gender-based stereotypes.

Whereas men are given wide latitude to make mistakes in their leadership practices, women are unfairly held to a higher standard. Think of it as a road flanked by deep chasms on both sides. The road for men is pretty wide. They can make huge mistakes without much risk of falling over the edge. Conversely, a woman's margin of error in leadership positions is quite narrow.

For example, if a man has an overbearing management style he's perceived as someone driving forward to get results. But when women so much as lean that direction they're usually perceived as cold-hearted witches.

The same unfair double-standard exists on the other side of the road, too. If a man is lenient on people who break rules, he's usually described as showing his human side, but when women do the same they're often described as weak.

When encountering any double standards based on gender stereotypes, leading management thinkers advocate that women stay focused on their responsibilities, and not get sidetracked.

It so happens that both women who have been on major party tickets to be Vice President of the United States have followed that advice. Those as old as I am may recall that Geraldine Ferraro was asked point blank by TV news anchor Ted Koppel, "Are you tough enough" to be President? Yet he never asked any male candidate that question. And during her first congressional campaign in New York, Ferraro's opponent continuously hurled personal attacks at her, many with sexist overtones.

Consider also Sarah Palin, who was routinely criticized during her campaign for ignoring her children for the sake of political office. Similar to Ferraro, this double standard was not fair. After all, nobody seemed concerned about how Barak Obama was going to accommodate his children should he win, and Senator-Elect Joe Biden was not grilled by the media for taking his senate seat in 1972 after his wife and daughter were tragically killed in a car accident soon after his election, leaving Biden to care for his surviving children on his own.

Both Ferraro and Palin correctly tried to stay focused on the issues instead of getting sidetracked by responding to irrelevant judgments.

While I'm talking about high-profile issues, let's also consider the recent media frenzy that occurred when the Susan G. Komen foundation announced it had decided to stop giving grant money to Planned Parenthood. This is a sad example of how an organization can allow women to be unfairly hauled over the coals when the organization won't hold fast to solid leadership principles.

The focus of several tumultuous news cycles was Komen's senior VP of advocacy, Karen Handel. You may recall the media pummeled Handel and her pro-life stance as being the driving force behind the Komen decision.

With intense media pressure and without seeing any backing from Komen's leadership, Handel resigned. But what didn't get widely reported is that the entire board of directors at the Komen foundation had decided to stop giving money to Planned Parenthood before Handel was hired into leadership more than a year ago. Additionally, in her resignation letter, Handel noted that "Komen's decision to change its granting strategy and exit the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood and its grants was fully vetted at every appropriate level within the organization."

Handel also said "What was a thoughtful and thoroughly reviewed decision - one that would have indeed enabled Komen to deliver greater community impact - has unfortunately been turned into something about politics."

If what Handel writes is true (and nobody at Komen has refuted it), then the leadership at the Komen foundation essentially threw Handel under the bus. As a leadership team, they should have stood firm to basic leadership principles and defended their corporate decision to focus more on their own mission.

Regardless of whether one is pro-life or pro-Planned Parenthood, this never should have happened. Komen missed an opportunity to demonstrate good leadership, but instead they let fall one of their female leaders. Sadly, even an organization run primarily by women is apparently susceptible to creating trip hazards for its women leaders.

Bottom line, the road to senior leadership positions should be the same width for both women and men, and it's important that organizations do all they can to ensure that. Also, wise are the women who stay focused on the real issues, even in the face of double standards. If we keep working on it, the trip hazards can be cleared.

Copyright © Dan Bobinski, used with permission
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