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25th February 2019

HR Issues – Reflections on stereotypes and the glass ceiling in female leadership roles

With International Women’s Day coming up on 8th March 2019, now is as important a time as any to attend to the continued issues of the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap. This article takes a critical look at aspirations of female leadership and the challenges which come with this.

Perhaps contrary to some conceptions of increasing gender balance, the glass ceiling and gender pay gap remain firmly present in today’s employment landscape. For example, despite a common perception of the education sector as progressive, inclusive and morally conscious, in the United Kingdom it has one of the largest gender pay gaps across all industries: 21%, narrower only than finance & insurance (22.5%), and construction (24%). Furthermore, the presence of a ‘glass ceiling’ to women achieving leadership roles in education is evident, even in the context of a sector dominated by females: women comprise 62% of secondary teachers, but only 39% of secondary headteachers. And this is generally reflected across sectors throughout employment.

Many point to a deeply-rooted culture of misogyny to explain this inequality, not only in employment but throughout society generally. Underpinning much of leadership recruitment decisions and pay discrepancy is the historical stereotype that women are somehow ‘just not as good’ as men for the job. This subtle attitude can be seen in various places.

Wording of job adverts

A typical advert for a leadership role will include phrases such as ‘driven’, ‘ambitious’, ‘relentless’, and ‘not afraid to stand up for themselves’. Admittedly, these are positive traits that come into most people’s minds when we think of leaders. However, these terms are also stereotypically very ‘masculine’: it could be argued that such phrases jump into our heads when we think of leaders because, historically speaking, we equate ‘leadership’ with men. To expand on this point, the phrases mentioned above are not inherently sexist, but when they are a) clustered together, and b) used in the absence of other leadership qualities like ‘compassionate’, ‘respectful’, ‘multi-tasking’ or ‘listening’, such phrases can be interpreted as appealing to men and off-putting to women.

Employer bias

Alongside job adverts, women can also experience difficulty and bias with regard to other aspects of the recruitment and selection process. The likes of male dominated selection panels can be a setback to women, alongside inflexible work commitments which create barriers for women who are likely to take time off their career for family reasons. Furthermore, women can face rejection from leadership roles for failing to display typically ‘masculine’ qualities such as being ‘authoritative’ or having ‘presence’, despite effectively leading in other ways. These examples reinforce the detriment to women of participating in leadership recruitment processes in education where they must strive to attain the ideals which are generally set ‘for men, by men’.

Stereotype inconsistency

So, struggling against a male dominated process for leadership roles in education is a minefield for women, where they are likely to be unsuccessful by not displaying the same characteristics and commitments as men. However, such is the power of stereotyping that women face a ‘double-edged sword’ when it comes to aspirations of leadership. If, contrary to the above section, a woman does display ‘ambition’, ‘drive’ or ‘relentlessness’, perhaps during meetings or by applying for leadership roles, this behaviour is often denounced as ‘over aggressive’ or ‘belligerent’. In fact, research has suggested that women who ask for a pay rise are actually disliked more, even though ‘wanting to get on’ is perceived as a desirable trait in men. In other words, women can be rejected for not conforming to masculine ideals, but vilified for displaying these very same qualities. Systematic misogyny is evident again in that behaving in a manner inconsistent with the stereotype of a woman can represent another barrier to achieving leadership success.

Confidence issues

Perhaps even more powerful than deeply rooted sexism in employment is the internalisation of negative beliefs about self-worth by the women involved. When systematic oppression is so overwhelming, it is easy for many to simply accept the way things are, leading to not applying for that leadership role or asking for that pay rise, rather than engaging in a collective effort to challenge personal and societal perceptions of women as natural leaders.

In 2019, there is more opportunity and support than ever to improve female leadership. Efforts to do so begin from inside the consciousness of everyone, not just women. By recognising and changing the discourse being used in job advertisements, employers can make a difference to female participation in leadership recruitment processes. By being aware of our and others’ unconscious biases, we can begin to break down systematic misogyny further.

Stereotypes are not necessarily negative. Stereotypical feminine traits – compassion, empathy, inclusiveness, balance – are just as related to leadership as stereotypical masculine traits. However, when we unconsciously choose what to include in our stereotype of a leader, we are also choosing what not to include. Only by becoming aware of these automatic decisions and beliefs, and the assumptions underlying them, can we begin to shift the culture in a more gender balanced direction.

If you have any queries on the above article, please contact Scott McCrory-Irving.

25th February 2019