It's time to give female leaders a break

Last week Therese Huston published a Harvard research article arguing we are way harder on female leaders who make bad calls.  She references the struggles faced by Marissa Mayer and Hillary Clinton, two prolific females forever in the news.  Admittedly they have made some mistakes – big and costly mistakes. But the question she raises is, are they judged harsher than their male counterparts?  Are all female leaders scrutinized more?  I believe they are.  And I loathe saying it.  But I’ve seen too much to believe the contrary.

Decades of research has proved a number of stereotypes and biases that we associate with men and women. Here are just a few examples.  Global 360 assessment data has shown that we perceive men and women as having distinctly different competency strengths.  Sometimes these seem plausible, sometimes they don’t.  But we perpetuate the perceived associations.  Or, even though studies have shown that employees actually prefer a female boss over a male boss, the ‘think leader, think male’ bias is still engrained deeply.  And my personal favorite, women are held to higher social and moral standards of conduct than men.

While we think this may harken back to biblical times, there are still places today where a woman is stoned to death for committing infidelity. Nothing happens to the man.  Too extreme an example for the business world?  How about this.  At a senior leader networking dinner not long ago I had to intervene a heated debate as senior partners tried to convince high potential women in their 20’s and 30’s about the importance of wearing pantyhose.  Their careers depended on it!  I'm pretty sure they weren't coaching the men on the color of their socks. What a wasted opportunity to soak up experience and wisdom about leadership and career success.

If this sounds ludicrous to you – it is!  And yet day after day we sit by and watch example after example of talk that is more about what a female leader is wearing, or her choices about child rearing than her actual impact as a leader.  And we judge them more harshly for it. 

Another bias we have is that we believe a woman should ‘know better’.  Not only do we more easily forgive men for mistakes, we decouple personal characteristics from their leadership success.  We do. It’s time to give female leaders a break on the things that don’t and shouldn’t matter.  We need to hold all leaders accountable for the things that do matter.  It’s time to level the playing field on what makes a successful leader.   

I was recently working with a group of high potential males in a leadership development program. In addition to common leadership topics, a goal of the program was to raise awareness about bias, and how it innocently slips into our day without us even knowing it.  The group was genuinely interested in the conversation and sought to understand the challenges faced by women. 

One of the men raised the question of Mayer’s parenting decisions.  As expected a healthy debate ensued.  Then one individual turned to me and asked my opinion ‘as a woman’.  I said to the group, “whether I agree or disagree with her decisions is completely irrelevant.  You are missing the point.  Until we stop this conversation, the conversation that is about judgment, nothing will change.  We have to shift the conversation.”  The room went silent and I saw the wheels turning in their heads.

What's happening right now is that the spotlight is shining so bright on female leaders. Young women are desperate for role models.  Feminists the world over are watching the reported numbers for Board and senior leadership appointments as if it were their own stock portfolios.  And of course this makes the handful of women who are drastically outnumbered in higher ranks juicy stories for journalists.  The good news is that this spotlight provides a heightened platform to shift the conversation to a place where it really matters.