Women are often seen as likable or competent, but rarely both. They are also held to different standards simply by virtue of gender. However, gender is not a good predictor of who will be a good leader. Allyson Zimmermann writes that outdated societal values are holding women back, and we all have a role to play in challenging and changing those gendered expectations.
Dancing and singing at a summer party caused a scandal for the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, and one which was defused only when she consented to a drug test, which was negative. A young woman having fun, out of work hours, was deemed unbecoming to Marin’s office of state and, for some reason, could only be explained by the presence of illegal substances, according to the dominant narrative seeking to discredit her.
As well as taking the drugs test, Marin quickly apologised, whilst being unsure what she was apologising for: “I danced, sang, and partied – perfectly legal things. And I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve seen or known of others [using drugs]”. To support Marin, women worldwide posted videos of themselves dancing under the hashtags, #Keepdancing and #SolidaritywithSanna.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson was also embroiled in a so-called ‘partygate’ scandal, when he was accused of tacitly allowing (and even attending) multiple parties at his official residence during lockdown. While this would ultimately lead to his downfall, it took some time for accountability to take hold.
A US study examined news reports on CEOs in a crisis. When it was a woman CEO, 80% of news cited the CEO as the problem, whereas when it was man, only 31% of the articles assigned the blame to his door.
As women often are held to higher standards, with fewer rewards, men are often given a larger margin of error in how they behave in the workplace. A few years ago, I was in a room of women CEOs in London. Hearing them share first-hand the challenges they faced, I saw one bias very clearly: The constant need to prove they were good enough. Someone even quoted Catalyst research showing that women are promoted based on performance, while men are promoted based on potential.
It is this kind of bias that is difficult to prove, as it is quite subtle. It can be as simple as “I think she’s very capable, but I’d love to see her get a bit more experience in x, y, or z” versus, “this is going to be a challenge for him, but I think he can do it”. This subtlety is the home of the higher standard.
Why is this? Sometimes, we need to go back to basics. Whilst women and men lead in similar ways, stereotypes exist about their leadership styles. Catalyst’s research on the double bind in the workplace revealed that women leaders are “damned if they do and doomed if they don’t”. Women are often seen as likable or competent, but rarely both. They are also held to different standards simply by virtue of gender. That perception must shift, because we know that gender is not a good predictor of who will be a good leader.
Women also face more age discrimination. Ageism is the most widespread discrimination in Europe. In 2021, 64% of UK respondents and 44% in Europe described age discrimination as a serious problem. Furthermore, ageism hits women at a young age and is more pernicious than for men. Women over 40 (over 45 for men) can face negative perceptions and these can feed into societal biases that older workers have lost their touch in the workplace. Older women also get more job rejections than older men.
To retain and advance women in the workplace, there needs be a change in how women are valued and assessed. If women are being punished more harshly for deviating from society’s expectations of how a woman should behave or look, progress will continue to be glacial.
The pandemic has shown the need for a different kind of leadership. Inclusive leadership research reveals that the best leaders are humble, imperfect and fallible. They can own up to mistakes and admit they do not know all the answers and show empathy and trust, two crucial skills in today’s working environment. Interestingly, these behaviours lead to a more productive and engaged workforce which is less likely to leave.
Outdated societal values are holding women back and have no place in today’s workplace. We all have a role to play in challenging and changing those gendered expectations. Let’s start by reframing how leaders “should” look and act.