Why women are doomed to failure

Jul 18 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

It's hard enough for women to scale the heights in business, but even when they do they are faced with a range of "double-bind" contradictions that make it almost impossible for them to be truly successful.

However women choose to lead an organisation hard as nails or "soft" and feminine they are doomed to be castigated by their (predominantly male) colleagues and rivals, new American research has suggested.

Three key "damned if you, damned if you don't" contradictions for women leaders have been identified by U.S. research and advisory organisation Catalyst.

The first of these is what it classes as "extreme perceptions". If women business leaders act consistent with gender stereotypes, they are considered too soft. But if they go against gender stereotypes, they are considered too tough.

If women go against gender stereotypes, they are considered too tough

Second, women leaders more often than not face higher standards than male leaders and are rewarded with less.

Often, therefore, they must work doubly hard to achieve the same level of recognition as male leaders for the same level of work to "prove" they can lead.

Third, when women exhibit traditionally valued leadership behaviours such as assertiveness, they tend to be seen as competent but not personable or well-liked.

Yet when they adopt a more stereotypically feminine style they are liked but not seen as having valued leadership skills.

The research follows on from a study by the consultancy back in 2005 that argued senior executives' perceptions of men and women were more informed by gender-based stereotypes than facts.

This in turn led to misrepresentation of the true talents of women and contributing to the continuing gender gap in business leadership.

But the latest research, which polled 1,231 people (296 U.S senior managers and corporate leaders and 935 in Europe) also suggested businesses could overcome these inherent contradictions around gender stereotyping through organisational solutions.

The organisation's census of women leaders found the gender gap in the U.S more than alive and well.

Even though women make up over half of management, professional, and related occupations, just 15.6 per cent of Fortune 500 corporate officers and 14.6 per cent of Fortune 500 board directors were women.

"When companies fail to acknowledge and address the impact of gender stereotypic bias, they lose out on top female talent," pointed out Catalyst president Ilene H. Lang.

"Ultimately, it's not women's leadership styles that need to change. Only when organisations take action to address the impact of gender stereotyping will they be able to capitalise on the 'full deck' of talent," she added.

Although research has long shown that men and women exhibit similar leadership styles, men do not face the persistent gender stereotyping that frequently places women business leaders in "no-win" dilemmas, said Catalyst.

The study, which interviewed senior business executives from both the U.S and Europe, found that men were still viewed as "default leaders" and women as "atypical leaders", with the perception that they violate accepted norms of leadership, no matter what the leadership behaviour.

Thus the masculine leadership norm created the three connected, but distinct "double-bind dilemmas" for women leaders today, it added.

As one of the (male) contributors to the research said: "My observations show senior women to be at either end of the spectrum, drivers that do it themselves (even though they might have given it to someone).

"This type tends to give little recognition and is a perfectionist. The others are very effective delegators, giving lots of recognition and building loyal teams, but can be perceived as 'not tough enough'."

Similarly, a European female, high-potential manager commented: "Men and women are seen differently, and the difference in my experience and observation is that we (women) need to show it more times before they believe it. With a woman, they will want to see the behaviour repeated more frequently before they will say that this is really part of the women (sic) and her capabilities."

And a U.S female manager added: "It may just be that people are more sensitive to how women behave in that regard. There does seem to be a little more tolerance for harsh behaviour from men rather than women. Women are quicker to get labeled, and with men, it's easier to brush it off..."

Finally, a Spanish male middle manager explained: "I have experienced in the past that women can be distrusted in leadership roles, especially when they use a dominant style of communication. On the contrary, if they use a collaborative style serving their organisation and empowering people, they get more recognition and sincere appreciation from their male equals."

The Catalyst study argued that organisations needed to develop and promote change to rid the work environment of the damaging impact of gender stereotyping and take advantage of the expanding pool of female leadership talent.

"While women may address double-bind dilemmas with individual strategies," explained Lang, "this is clearly about organisations shifting their norms and culture to meet marketplace demands".

Simply learning about how stereotypes operated and holding individuals accountable could decrease the negative effects of gender stereotypic bias.

Similarly, providing women leaders and other employees with tools and resources to increase awareness of women leaders' skills could help, as did assessing the work environment to identify in what ways women are at risk of stereotypic bias.

Better managerial training and diversity education and more effective performance and evaluation management could also be effective, it added.


Older Comments

The reason women are paid less than men and treated inequitably stems from ancient religious beliefs that considered women of less value than men. The way women are treated in the workplace is directly related to those erroneous beliefs about what is 'women's work' and what is 'men's work.' We forget that Old Testament women had to be accompanied everywhere by a man in their family, just as Muslim women are today. They had to 'cover their heads' too. If the family's honor was destroyed, she was stoned. (Jesus saves such a woman, as I recall; and the male adulterer was nowhere to be found. ) This OT woman had no property rights and no money of her own until the daughters of Zelophehad demanded their father's inheritance. (Joshua 17:3-5) Ancient inequalities are ingrained in our society.

Even with 83% of all single-parent families headed by a women, our current society (and it's 2008 now) cannot accept that it's women who put food on the table and 'lead' their household. The 'men shall lead and women shall follow mentality' is deeply ingrained in our society and reinforced in Christian churches daily.

Men think something is amiss when they see a female leader; they cannot imagine a role reveral with a woman in charge (as President) and men obeying orders. But, that day will come. How we we change a mindset that goes back to Genesis? By banding together and using our political clout. There are now 6 million more women than men in the world. Never has the time been more ripe for change!!!

Rosanne nashville, TN in the heart of the Bible Belt

How we think and feel about being 'women', has got a lot to do with our upbringing, culture and off cause ourselves. Maybe the biggest challenge is not the 'glass ceiling' or the 'glass cliff', but ourselves. How do we juggle being female, wife, mum and career 'wow'man? It's pretty amazing that more than 50% of our management workforce is ladies.....why then just 3 CEO's in the Fortune 500 companies? Many reasons, that only us women will be able to understand....We've been created to BE all of the above and much more, it's time to BE!!!! Be all you can be and enjoy it!!!!!! Spread the 'wow'man power.......

Tillah Gerber Brisbane, Australia

Women are not 'doomed to failure.' 70% of the commercials on television are directed towards either women or children, because women drive consumerism more then men in America. This is just one indicator that you girls have been running your households for years! You ladies have already eclipsed men in so many areas. For every two men graduating from college, three women graduate (in 2010). And for the first time in history, there are more women graduating with Ph.D's in America than men. What women are facing now with their challenges in the workplace is good old fashioned opposition and drudgery. The working environment is not always nice or comfortable, and this is unsettling for many women. Men have been contending with belligerrent subordinates and back-stabbing colleagues for thousands of years and have tolerated the scorn and envy of the people who want their positions. So it's not always about sexism. But the advantage still belongs to women, because more professions are going to require a college education in a job market that has changed so drastically.

I am all in favor of the feminist movement, and I've told my girlfriends of the past that I commend and encourage them to have careers. I've dated feminists and I've dated gold diggers, and I think feminists (or 'independent career women') beat them hands-down. They are more responsible, pay for their own things, and have set clear goals for themselves. But there is an overplayed, blind assumption that women make less than men; it's not necessarily true. Construction crews, for example, default the easiest jobs to women (i.e., directing traffic) while the men are in a hole doing all the manual labor. The same applies to many jobs in the military, though they all receive the same pay. So while the pay scales have certainly not been leveled for women, they are still able to capitalize on opportunities that men cannot.

What women REALLY have to look forward to is greater upward mobility in the work force because the manufacturing base (where jobs were usually reserved for men) in America is on such a dismal decline. Gone are the days when I could just walk into a factory and work the assembly line, like my dad did (not that I'd want to). Jobs requiring greater communication skills (an area where women triumph) are in higher demand, and the service industry has embraced the working woman by tapping into that demographic.

Mrs Bible Belt, you are right on. But it's not that women possess a greater skill in leadership than men that makes them the bosses by proxy within the home. It is the golden rule that has put them in charge (whoever has the gold makes the rules), because women now represent the largest percentage of breadwinners in the home. As a single man with no children, I can face this fact square in the face and have no problems with it. I am my own man, and frankly a man's personal identity crisis is not my problem. What I do argue, however, is that after 40 years of women making one stride after another in the workplace, they have finally eclipsed men in many areas. But regardless of this fact, the same old complaint is being implemented, as if we're living in 1970.

And speaking of Sarah Palin, I'm not opposed to her because she's a woman. I'm opposed to her because she's an idiot. And I even voted for McCain! SP is the kind of PERSON that would employ the 'don't retreat, reload' mentality with a nuclear arsenal under her thumb. I find it really amazing that no one has considered someone like Condoleeza Rice as a presidential candidate, who has 5 times the experience and education for such a position.

Thanks for reading the lengthy post.

Mike USA