Women CEOs Are Rated More Harshly Than Men, But Are We Surprised?

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As the old advertisement said, when it comes to women in positions of leadership, we've come a long way, baby. But have we really?

When we look at the way female CEOs are rated compared to their male counterparts, the answer is, no, not so much. The job hunting website Glassdoor.com recently came out with a list of the top one hundred highest rated CEOs. Only eight of the top 100 CEOs on the list were women. And of those eight women, none were ranked in the top ten or even the top 20. Two of the women who made the top 100 were ranked #99 and #100 respectively.

Are women truly less competent as CEOs? Or could it be that people judge women more harshly than men? (Hint: It’s the second answer. Duh).

A Double Standard in Many Ways

Research shows us that one of the primary hurdles women face while striving to excel in the workplace is inherent bias. What is inherent bias? Inherent bias consists of a set of underlying assumptions about how people should behave regardless of what is said out loud.

For example, while few people today would suggest that women are inherently less intelligent than men, many people still associate career advancement as a male pursuit, just as they attribute raising a family with being women's work.

Overcoming Stereotypes

Women also struggle to overcome the idea that when it comes to taking charge, a man is best suited for the job. While the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth, the perception remains that women tend to care for others while men tend to make difficult decisions.

A recent Catalyst study revealed that people often retain information that fits with their preconceived stereotypes. For example, many older generations still believe that a woman's place, if not in the kitchen, at least belongs in caring and nurturing roles instead of positions of power. Therefore, coworkers and managers alike tend to recall instances in which women act in traditionally female ways, but overlook accomplishments in which a woman took a business risk and won.

Communication Issues

Another factor affecting bias against women in positions of power is communication. While women executives often coach themselves to be more direct and assertive in their communication, they walk a fine line.

Women who are overly direct and to the point can come across as brusque, shrill or demanding. However, if a man were to deliver the same message in the same fashion, he would most likely be applauded for taking charge and saying what needs to be said.

Look no further than Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential bid to see communication bias in action. While Clinton spoke assertively, yet reasonably, many perceived her as being overly harsh, unfeminine and unappealing. Her opponent Donald Trump, on the other hand, took a no-holds-barred approach in his communication style, even crossing lines of common decency, and was encouraged for “saying it like it is.”

Apparently, that’s a desirable trait if one happens to be male.

Judgment for Family Time

The perception that women should be the nurturers in the family backfires on females when it comes to their careers. Because perception molds reality, women who leave work early for family obligations or even for their own self-care get judged much more harshly than their male colleagues. While a man garners praise for being a good father when he leaves the office early to tend to a sick child, a woman may receive criticism for the same act.

Studies show that women-led companies often outperform those headed by men and that companies that embrace diversity see the largest improvement in their bottom lines. However, the inherent bias remains.

For example, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, has driven company profits up significantly. Nevertheless, she often receives unfavorable ratings on Glassdoor despite the fact that the company has exceeded goals under her leadership.

Hope in the Next Generation

How do we address this inherent bias and prejudice against women leaders? One hope lies in the next generation. Among younger workers, inherent bias against women in positions of power is waning.

But we can't afford to wait for attitudes to change with each passing generation. Rather, we need to recognize as a society that this inherent bias exists and take pro-active steps to address it. Gender communication and sensitivity training help address and defeat the bias against women in power. And by recognizing the contributions of all staff members regardless of gender, companies can grow their bottom lines.

In short, inherent bias against women has impacted more than just individual women — it affects a business as a whole. Because of that, we really need to raise awareness about this issue — not just so women can advance their careers, but so the economy can thrive.

Article by Kate Harveston, Journalist and Freelance Writer

Blog: Only Slightly Biased

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