Female leaders have been in the spotlight several times in recent years. From Jacinda Ardern to Sheryl Sandberg, we've seen women of different backgrounds and causes leading the change for a better world. However, certain populations still do not trust them to be effective leaders due to a deeply rooted gender bias.
Even in countries that have had female leaders, there remains a culture of distrust in female authorities. No matter her accolades, women leaders still experience harsher criticism and sexist comments. The gender bias has implanted misleading stereotypes on how women should be, making the public believe that women can't be leaders.
All this shows how gender stereotypes can be powerful but problematic. They form early in life as girls are told to do chores and be compliant while boys are praised for being adventurous and being leaders. Such patterns of beliefs follow people into adulthood and eventually into the workplace.
However, the impacts of stereotypes don't stop at influencing career choices and outcomes. In a study on workplace authority, researchers found that a manager's gender affects the behavior of his or her clients. Clients were more likely to miss payments when their manager was female. But even when the manager was subsequently changed into a male, this behavior persistently remained. The study eventually concluded that the gender of the first manager was a more significant predictor of client payment behavior compared to other factors.
So, what does this mean? It seems that we do not only stereotype people, but jobs as well. There are roles that have traditional gender assignments, but newer jobs don't possess these pre-existing stereotypes. However, the same study researched further and saw that it took only one interaction with a person in these new positions to begin associating the role with that person's gender.
What's more, only female managers suffered negative feedback because it was a managerial role. A manager is a position of authority, pegged as a "man's job," so the clients unconsciously found women unfit this role, compared to the men.
Another example discussing stereotypes on women leaders is a study on humor at work. Humor from managers is understood to help lighten the mood. Likewise, it could be an unwelcome distraction for workers. The findings from the study reflected the results of the latter: female leaders who made jokes were perceived by both men and women to be more unprofessional and distracting compared to their male counterparts who used humor.
Room for improvement (...a lot of it)
These studies prove how despite the progress of having more women in positions of authority, the views of the public on them remain largely unchanged. Even as the presence of male supporters of female leaders increases, it's still not a significant indicator of continuous change.
Japanese political scientist Yoshikuni Ono discovered that in the US, the public—especially younger participants—tended to overestimate women's representation in Congress. The younger ones falsely believed that since they see more female students at their schools, women have already reached a balance of representation and there is less need for female leaders. Unfortunately, this group fails to recognize that they hold any gender bias, denying their part in perpetuating gender stereotypes.
Making room for women leaders
Overall, we realize that the key is not in altering the image of men or women, but the perception of leadership positions. We must build awareness and spread the word about female leaders while keeping their presence visible and influential.
It starts with allowing young girls to see that they can become leaders who make decisions, not limiting them to traditional, nurturing-type roles. Homes, schools and workplaces must support more female leaders in senior management and C-suite roles.
To the aspiring women, we must accept the challenge that these biases will continue to exist unless we take the first step. We must march into male-dominated workplaces while freely speaking our minds. We have to be prepared to face the stereotypes that the public will subtly but surely throw at us.
It's difficult to change minds and beliefs that have persisted over time, but there is more work to be done if we want to view female leaders as more than outliers. Female leaders must become a norm in order to break the glass ceiling once and for all.
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