The number of women leaders in the largest companies in the United States declined by 25 percent this year, as reported by Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times. Because the number of female chief executive officers (CEO) is small, to begin with, the departure of even one – such as the recent departure of Denise Morrison as the CEO of Campbell Soup Company, has a big numerical impact. In fact, the number of female CEOs has dropped from thirty-two to twenty-four in the past year.
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Why does it matter that so few women are CEOs and that the numbers are declining? One reason is that unconscious assumptions about gender determine who gets seen as leadership material when managers need to hire or promote. In a study reported by Heather Murphy of the New York Times, both women and men almost always draw a man when asked to draw an effective leader.
Murphy reports on another study where research participants were asked to listen in by phone to a fictional sales meeting. In some of the “meetings,” study participants heard “Eric” offer change-oriented ideas while other participants heard “Erica” read the same script. When research participants were asked to rate the speaker, either Eric or Erica, on how much he or she had exhibited leadership, the Erics were far more likely than the Ericas to be identified as leaders, even though the Ericas shared the exact same ideas. Murphy cites Nilanjana Dasgupta of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who explains that “When people are consistently exposed to leaders who fit one profile [male], they will be more likely to notice leaders who fit that same profile in the future.”
In other words, even when a woman acts like a leader, her talents are less likely to be noticed or identified as leadership because the generally accepted profile of a leader is a man.
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This inherent bias is why it matters that the number of women in high visibility CEO roles in big companies is declining. Murphy points out that we need to see more women in leadership roles to expand our unconscious assumptions about who can be an effective leader. Instead, the numbers are declining. In fact, depressingly, every female executive who stepped down during the past year was replaced by a man.
Miller notes that the obstacles for female executives are rooted in biases against women in power. In fact, Miller cites two studies to make her case:
- Both women and men have families, but caregiving is considered to be a woman’s problem and, therefore, limits the opportunities made available to women.
- Leadership ability does not appear to be affected by gender differences. A study of 2,600 executives found no difference in multiple areas assessed, including interpersonal skills, analytical and managerial skills, and general ability.
Yet, women were much less likely to become chief executives. This problem is clearly a vicious cycle. Because we don’t see women in executive roles, women don’t get the opportunity to be hired or promoted into executive roles. We have to keep challenging both women and men to examine their unconscious biases about who can be an effective leader. We must also continue to push for more women on corporate boards who will hopefully push for more women to be considered for CEO roles. And, we need to elect women to the office where they can raise these issues legislatively.
Let’s keep asking: “Where are the women?”
Check out the video below to watch Sophie Le Ray the co-founder of the Women In Leadership forum series speak about challenges she faces as a woman in her generally male-dominated industry.