Why do we see fewer women in leadership roles than men?

Despite possessing the traits necessary in leaders, women are scarce in the top ranks.


Though it is a matter of pride that this century has seen women excelling as leaders and not just mothers, wives, care givers and professionals, we are not surprised to see more men than women in leadership positions. While there may be many all-women organisations and a sizeable population of women across hierarchies in various companies, the top positions on the corporate ladder are still dominated by men. Why is that so?

Women do not lack the qualities that are necessary in leaders. In fact, they seem to be blessed with all the traits that are essential in leadership positions. What makes leaders? A desire to excel, grit, determination, long-term vision, ability to convince and influence others, passion for work, an understanding of themselves, compassion for others, ability to adapt, and willingness to learn among other things. Women possess all these and much more. Yet, there are fewer women leaders in this world than their male counterparts.

A study by researchers of New York University, that was published in Frontiers in Psychology, attempts to identify the features that are responsible for the existence of more men in senior leadership roles. It reveals that the communal traits that leaders are expected to possess, such as tolerance and cooperation, are definitely desirable but actually redundant or unnecessary. If an individual possesses them, they act as a bonus. Surprisingly, even women agree that there are more men in senior positions of leadership because they are assertive and competitive. This means, they are up there because of their masculine traits.

Traditionally, women are expected to be demure, caring and nurturing. These characteristics are termed as communal. Men, on the other hand, are seen as dominating, self-confident, and aggressive. In other words, these are the acceptable agentic traits that men are expected to possess.

According to the social role theory, human beings are brought up to believe that women are meant to take care whereas men are meant to take charge. This is so ingrained in the society that if women try to deviate from the norm, or break the mould, they are criticised or even looked down upon for violating the social roles that are actually prescribed for them.

But if they try to fulfill their roles as traditionally prescribed and also try to be leaders, they end up being less effective in their leadership position. In other words, if they attempt to be good leaders and good nurturers, they end up compromising their performance in any one of the two roles. Therefore, irrespective of their leadership style, they will have to deal with some resistance or opposition.

Simply put, women pay the price for all the assumptions culturally imposed on society. They lose out due to the traditional organisational structures, practices, and systems of interaction, that work to the advantage of men.

The most disturbing fact is that, people do not even realise that they are biased when it comes to women occupying senior corporate positions or leadership roles. Unconsciously, women and men have been evaluated differently for senior leadership posts, and continue to be so. And over a period of time when the top ranks come to be dominated by men, the overall perception is that women are not the right choice for those roles. With time, that becomes the norm and accepted practice.

That is why we see lesser women atop the hierarchy than men.

However, the study also reveals that women prefer leaders with more communal traits. But it remains to be seen whether the world will see more leaders with these traits in times to come. However, if that is the trend waiting to catch on, women will surely favour it.

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