Senior executives' perceptions of men and women are more informed by gender-based stereotypes than facts, leading to misrepresentation of the true talents of women and contributing to the startling gender gap in business leadership.
Women "Take Care," Men "Take Charge", a new report by Catalyst, a U.S. research and advisory organisation dedicated to advancing women at work, argues that the effects of gender-based stereotyping can be devastating, potentially undermining women's capacity to lead, and posing serious challenges to women's career advancement.
Both men and women respondents cast women as better at stereotypically feminine "caretaking skills" such as supporting and rewarding. And both men and women asserted that men excel at more conventionally masculine "taking charge" skills such as influencing superiors and delegating responsibility.
Overall, the study found that men saw women as superior in only two out of 10 key leadership behaviours, supporting and rewarding subordinates.
"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 Director of Research at Catalyst.
But while men and women leaders' responses conformed largely to gender stereotypes, they differed widely in their judgments of problem-solving ability
Women saw women as better problem-solvers. Men saw men as better problem-solvers. In fact, problem-solving - one of the qualities most commonly associated with effective leadership and a hallmark behaviour of a CEO - was the area in which men judged themselves most superior to women.
Since men far outnumber women in top management positions, this male-held stereotype dominates current corporate thinking, the report argues, and may contribute to the fact that although women hold more than half of all management and professional positions, they make up less than two per cent of U.S. Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 CEOs.
Indeed, the number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500 has actually decreased from eight in 2003 to seven today.
For women in business, this is a real catch-22, the study argues. Problem-solving, influencing superiors, delegating responsibility, and other "taking charge" skills are key components of what Catalyst's study terms "interpersonal power."
The study suggests that women, robbed of this interpersonal power, must therefore rely more on "positional power", their place in the hierarchy of their organisations. Yet as women comprise only 16 per cent of Fortune 500 corporate officers, their positional power is markedly limited.
Compounding this, it also appears that exposure to women leaders does not necessarily lessen stereotyping. Indeed it often reinforces it, creating "extreme perceptions" of women leaders.
But despite the fact that companies have shown an increased commitment to diversity, inclusion and the advancement of women in the workplace, the representation of women in leadership remains stagnant.
The study argues that unless organisations take steps to eradicate this bias, women leaders will always be undermined and misjudged, regardless of their talents or aptitudes.
Companies need to take active steps to combat stereotyping by instituting more rigorous and transparent evaluation processes, Catalyst says, as well as educating managers and executives about stereotyping. The achievements of women leaders also need to be showcased, particularly those in traditionally male-dominated fields.
"By shining a spotlight on this often unspoken and insidious barrier to women's advancement, it demonstrates empirically how gender - based stereotyping often operates as shorthand for fact and shortchanges women in the workplace," said Ilene Lang, President of Catalyst
"Ultimately, it's the companies that suffer. Developing and retaining the best talent is key to remaining competitive in the global business world."
Breaking down stereotypes around women and gender was a question of undoing long-held but misguided perceptions, and recognising their potential damage. "Until we break the spell of stereotyping, companies will continue to sub-optimise women and lose a vital talent pool — one they, frankly, cannot afford to ignore," Lang added.