It’s not very likeable: Here are the effects of bias on women leaders

More women are now working than ever before.

A 2018 survey found that over 70% of women aged 16 to 64 are employed. This percentage is up slightly from 53 percent in 1971. Just under half (46.5%) of the UK’s total labor force are women. Most mothers work. Nearly as many mothers with children (74.1%) were in the labor force in 2014 than women without children (75%) Women’s representation on the boards of FTSE100 companies rose from 11 percent to 28 percent in 2017 in terms of leadership. It’s not exactly half. When we take a look at the number of women who hold senior leadership positions, it is still lower at 22 percent in 2018. Catalyst reports that 14.6 percent of Fortune 500 executives are now women, compared to 8.1 percent for the highest-paid CEOs and just under five percent for the lowest paid.


What is the gender gap between lower ranks and leadership positions? Why isn’t there more female leadership roles and boards when the workforce at entry level is equally divided?

Having fewer women leaders means that women are more likely to be bullied at work and the workforce is less diverse. This can have a negative impact on the mental health of women employees who feel excluded and don’t have the same opportunities for advancement. A lack of female leaders can also lead to a shortage of role models who can encourage women to join and stay in the workforce.

Study after study has shown that unconscious bias can be prevalent in the workplace. Gender stereotypes are prevalent in the workplace. It is in our language and how we see women at work.

A double-bind bias, or the mismatch between what is expected and what is expected of female leaders, is a problem that can affect female leaders. Psychological research has revealed that there are two main types of gender bias which affect women. They are the prescriptive and descriptive bias . Prescriptive bias refers to the labels that we associate with certain groups or communities. Descriptive bias refers to how we expect them behave. If someone doesn’t conform to the prescribed roles or behaviors, they can be punished. For example, women are expected to be nurturing, caring, understanding, sympathetic, respectful, emotional, sensitive and rational. Men, on the other hand, must be assertive and rational and competent. These traits can be automatically assigned to people based on their gender, without any information about their personalities. A man is therefore more likely to succeed as a leader.

Prescriptive bias, on the other hand, is when a woman is not suited for a traditional male role and attempts to claim one is seen as breaking with the norm. A woman who is determined might be viewed as “brusque” or “abrupt” if she does not follow the norm. For the same type of leadership, women may be punished while men are commended.

This is called “likability”, which means that women who don’t assert themselves and aren’t able to fit the stereotype of a female as gentle and caring are more liked but are not considered leadership material. Women who exhibit traditional masculine qualities like assertiveness, forcefulness and ambition are generally considered “bitchy”, “unfeminine, and aggressive” and thus disliked. Both cases mean that women are less likely to be promoted to senior positions than men. Men are not affected by the same issue, as what is considered “bossy” in a woman can be considered leadership qualities for a man.


Madeline Heilman is a Professor of Psychology at NYU and a Social and Organizational Psychologist. She found that men who help out in the workplace are appreciated and acknowledged. If he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. It is assumed that a woman will help out in the workplace because it is her traditional role. If she does not, it is considered unhelpful and mean, traits that are not appropriate for a leader.

Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean in” mentions an experiment that was conducted at Columbia Business School, New York University by Frank Flynn (respectively) and Cameron Anderson (respectively). They chose the resume of a successful female entrepreneur, who was also known for her outgoing personality. Heidi, the woman’s real name was used on one set of identical resumes, while Howard, a man’s, was used on another. A group of students at business school read half of one resume and half of the other. It was amazing. Students rated Heidi as equally competent. Howard was rated as likable and a great colleague. Heidi was, however, viewed as a selfish, aggressive and insecure person who wouldn’t be able to play well with others. This demonstrates the biases that people have about gender roles and behavior, and how men are judged differently even though they are equal in their competence.


What is possible?

These biases can be unknowingly present, so it is crucial that we recognize them and accept them. You can’t claim that you are impartial and unprejudiced. These are unconscious biases that are shaped and influenced by cultural and social conditioning.

Both men and women should speak up and interrupt anyone who notices any comments that show prejudice. These remarks, like “she’s emotional”, “she’s too talkative”, or “she doesn’t care very much”, can impact how competence is perceived.

All staff members should receive appropriate bias training so they are aware not only of their actions, but also of the words and language they use. Even if they are meant to be funny or casual, words can cause mistrust and a negative workplace. It is important to create a culture in which men can participate in the debate and discourse, as well as female leaders. It is important to remember that these biases are not limited to men. Women can also discriminate against women and punish other women who are successful or trying to become one.

Companies and organizations must also examine their workplace policies and redefine the meaning of “leader”. It is important to work actively towards changing the ways we assign leadership qualities and traditional gender norms.

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