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The future was supposed to be female – so why the bias against women leaders?


Jenny M Hoobler is professor in the Department of Human Resource Management at the University of Pretoria, and a women and work expert.

Today’s biases against women in the workplace are subtler and harder to detect than in the past. Yet they affect women’s careers in real, detrimental ways. They strengthen the glass ceiling that constrains women from leadership roles.

“The Future is Female” was a popular slogan in the 1970s. It’s now 2022. It’s the future. Where are all the female leaders?

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became president of Liberia in 2006, there was jubilation that the African glass ceiling was finally shattered. Yet 16 years later, Africa has a grand total of just two women presidents across 54 countries.

Here in South Africa, only 13% of executive directors in JSE-listed companies are women. Just 8% of American CEOs are women – a number that hasn’t changed much in 20 years.

Supporters of Hillary Clinton proudly wore T-shirts declaring, “The Future is Female” during the 2016 US presidential elections. We know how that turned out.

So, what happened to the female future we were promised?

Gender and diversity scholars have been studying this for years. A Google Scholar search for “lack of women leaders” returns 3,170,000 hits, highlighting the depth of research in this area.

And we know from this research what the obvious barriers are: lack of mentors, low encouragement, family unfriendly workplaces, fewer opportunities for women and girls, gender-based socialisation into “feminine” careers such as teaching and nursing, and, frankly, enduring bias.

It’s fitting that the theme for International Women’s Day in 2022 (marked annually on 8 March) is “Break the Bias”.

Exposing the hidden, insidious workplace biases that devalue women and their career potential is a much-needed turn in scholarly research. 

Today’s biases are no longer as simple as adverts that read, “women need not apply”. They’ve gone underground. Research on implicit biases, those that we (people of all genders) don’t even know we harbour, holds the promise of progress towards gender equality. 

Naming and rooting out biases that keep women from leadership positions is where we need to focus our efforts today, if we’re ever to reach a gender-equal future.

Two research projects I have been involved in document how caregiving bias may be responsible for women’s lack of career progress.

First, my colleagues and I uncovered a caregiving bias against women who don’t even engage in caregiving. We studied middle managers in a large Fortune 100 company in the United States where we found that women who didn’t have children or eldercare responsibilities, weren’t married, and hadn’t taken family leave, were nevertheless viewed by their bosses as letting their family roles interfere at work. This same bias was not held against men. 

Some scholars call this “the ticking womb” – the view that women, at some point, are sure to put families ahead of careers, and therefore shouldn’t be considered for leadership roles. Our study found this is a bias that both men and women tend to hold against women.

The second bias my colleagues and I are documenting relates to the way workers view bosses who have family roles which conflict with work. Examples include followers (people who directly report to a boss) who observe the boss not being able to fetch a child from school due to a meeting running late, or cancelling a business trip to care for an ill mother. Here we are finding gender bias too. 

These direct subordinates observe bosses’ work-family conflict, but react differently to it depending on whether the boss is a woman or a man. When the boss is a woman, followers view the conflict as “normal” and expected. When the boss is a man, seeing their family side seems to be a peek into their humanity, and tends to be viewed as almost charming. 

Followers do more to help the men, reacting with greater work effort, pitching in and doing more on the job. Other research has called this sort of thing the “fatherhood premium” at work – in stark contrast to the “motherhood penalty”. When followers help male bosses more, the male bosses’ productivity is higher. This may mean lower performance metrics and ratings for female bosses, impeding their progress to top leadership positions.

Today’s biases against women in the workplace are subtler and harder to detect than in the past. Yet they impact women’s careers in real, detrimental ways. They strengthen the glass ceiling that constrains women from leadership roles.

So, how do we root out gender bias?

The International Women’s Day Committee has it right: Combating gender bias takes individual effort. Breaking the bias involves speaking out against stereotyping and sexism, and being mindful of the effects of our actions. Most of us, sadly, hold implicit gender bias, but we can act in ways to challenge it.

Even well-intended, benevolent sexism hurts women’s careers. A manager may pass over a woman with small children for a high-profile work assignment to “save” her from overnight travel. But the impact of this “benevolence” may be less exposure and fewer opportunities for her to lead. In such a situation, she should rather be offered the opportunity and allowed to decide.

It starts with simply being mindful of the assumptions and choices we make as we interact with others at work. If we can get this right, we can start to have hope that we can #breakthebias. 

Together we may begin to realise those promises of a female future. DM


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