Women and leadership: Social constructs that skew a gender balance

by Steven Francis

As my picture attached to this blog suggests, my personal experience on gender in the workplace is as a man. That a man is talking about gender balance in leadership presents a host of problems, so let me explain the perspective that I bring to the discussion. My experience as a racialized man in the LGBT community has guided my interest in social determinants of individual experience, prompting me to study race relations, gender relations, and the intersectional experience of these identities. Though the content is not the same, I strongly believe one form of marginalization provides a lens into another. It is from this perspective that I enter this discussion.

I’m convinced that gender balance in leadership is necessary. Ethically, it’s the right thing to do; financially, research shows it correlates to greater business earnings. The causes of gender imbalances in leadership are not based on facts: men are not inherently better leaders than women. Imbalances are, instead, the product of a society’s beliefs. Having equal representation in leadership is an important goal, but equally important is articulating the social ideas that support discrimination and subvert equality in the first place.

How can we use data analysis (i.e. facts) to expose the obstacles to gender balance? In my work at CCDI, I look at demographic data of different workplaces. Beyond providing counts and percentages of specific identity groups, we look at how these groups compare in terms of their climb towards the executive level of an organization. Findings vary across the country, and between and across organizations, but what is common among all of them is a vivid underrepresentation of women in leadership positions.

What specifically is contributing to this difference in outcomes? How can we possibly justify that women have less opportunity to advance? One answer to these questions is that gender roles in the family bleed into decisions that are made in the corporate world. We may deceive ourselves into believing that the expectation that men are breadwinners and women are caregivers is a relic of the past, but the assumptions of this division persist. The ideas are not gone, simply tailored to become less grating to the modern, more socially conscious ear.

How ideas about gender translate to the workplace consistently surface in CCDI’s analysis. Women are overrepresented in administrative roles, men are overrepresented in senior leadership. Further, when looking at the intersection of gender and familial identities (either being married or having dependents), we have found that married men or men with dependents are much more likely to be in a leadership position than married women or women with dependents. Other research explains the link between gender, family, and leadership with the argument that men with families are assumed to be more devoted to work, while women with families are assumed to be devoted to their home[1]. This means that expectations are still different for women and men. Beyond being biased, this assumption maintains men’s link as the breadwinner. The assumption can also be used to unfairly justify the exclusion of women from leadership.

How do we combat the effects these beliefs have in the workplace? A key starting point is to monitor any potential barriers, measurement is key. A fundamental aspect of this measurement is looking at gender (as well as other demographics) in relation to different tiers in the workplace hierarchy. This will allow you to see concentrations or omissions of groups of people, including women, women with families, racialized women, and so on, in positions of influence in an organization. It provides an evidence-based starting point for investigating the behaviours that limit women’s advancement to specific roles in the hierarchy.

Beyond commitment to an organization, great leadership includes the ability to collaborate and to inspire. There is no argument that can persuade me that the capacity to perform these tasks is dictated by gender, or race, or any other comparable marker of identity. The ability to embody these qualities transcends gender, and for a more equal balance of gender in leadership we need to move beyond socially ingrained and outdated assumptions that still work to limit women’s potential.

 

[1] Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard and In Paik. “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” American Journal of Sociology 112: 5(2007), 1297-1339.

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