30 Criticisms That Hold Women Leaders Back, According to New Research
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While women have been making strides in the fight for gender equity and equality in the workplace for decades, they still continue to earn less, face discrimination, and struggle to be promoted to top leadership positions.
Researchers Amy Diehl, Ph.D., Leanne Dzubinski, Ph.D., and Amber Stephenson, Ph.D. set out to understand why this is. What they found was that women can be criticized, critiqued, and held back in their careers for virtually any reason.
“We were surprised at just how many identity factors the women mentioned,” says Diehl, who is chief information officer at Wilson College, a gender equity researcher, and coauthor (with Dzubinski) of Glass Walls: Shattering the Six Gender Bias Barriers Still Holding Women Back at Work. “We concluded that anything about a woman can be used as a surface-level criticism hiding the underlying gender bias.”
Their study looked at 913 women leaders in four female-dominated fields—higher education, faith-based nonprofits, law, and healthcare—since gender bias research often focuses on male-dominated fields, such as STEM.
Using a measurement tool they previously created called the Gender Bias Scale for Women Leaders, the researchers compared women leaders’ perceptions and experiences of bias.
Their process involved asking open-ended questions, including what types of biases the leaders had faced in the workplace other than gender and what additional factors had influenced their work experiences.
What they found were 30 common personality traits and identity-based characteristics that the women leaders reported were used against them at work. These were:
- Body size
- Communication style
- Cultural identity
- Dietary restrictions
- Employment history
- Gender conformance
- Intellectual ability
- Marital status
- Occupational position
- Parental status
- Personality traits
- Physical ability
- Political preferences
- Residential location
- Sexual orientation
- Veteran status
A consistent challenge that emerged for women was their age, explains Diehl. Some reported being considered too young to lead, while others said being too old hindered them from advancing in their career. Parental status, choosing to have children or not, was another point of criticism for women. The report stated that a higher-education leader described how people assume she “can’t take on a bigger role ‘because of the kids,’” which made her feel that she needed “to work extra hard” to show that she could succeed as both a mother and leader.
Pregnancy, and even planning to have children, was also a point of contention, specifically for lawyers who participated in the study. Many felt their employers doubted they would return after maternity leave, while some were no longer given desirable assignments, and others were forced to quit private practice or work part time. Women of color faced discrimination in more subtle ways. Other factors like overall health, physical ability, and disabilities were enough to invoke bias.
The researchers found that there was no “sweet spot” where a woman could position herself without being criticized. Women were either too young or too old, too attractive or not attractive enough, too educated or not educated enough. Introverted women were not seen as leaders and extroverted women were viewed as aggressive. They ultimately found that women leaders were “never quite right.”
And while these problems not only affect women’s success in the workplace, businesses have a financial interest in ensuring gender equity. Organizations that fail to promote and support women in their top roles miss out on performance gains.
“The bad news is that the problem of gender bias is too big for any one person to stop it alone,” says Dzubinski, who is professor of Leadership and director of the Beeson International Center for Biblical Preaching and Church Leadership, and a researcher on women in leadership. “The good news is that gender bias is totally solvable, if all of us work together to address it.”
Here are some steps she recommends to take if you are facing gender bias in the workplace:
1. Be prepared. Gender bias happens. Know about it, and know names for it, so when it happens to you or someone around you, you can name and identify what happened. Being able to name and identify what happened helps you process the experience. It also gives you vocabulary to report the incident if needed.
2. Don’t take it personally. Gender bias is built into organizations, and it’s not personal to you. You didn’t cause it, and you aren’t responsible for it. People engaging in bias were socialized to think and behave that way. Give yourself permission to let it go instead of trying to figure out how to “fix yourself.”
3. Build a support network. Have people, inside and outside of work, who you enjoy being with. They can be a sounding board to discuss bias when it happens, and they can also be people who you enjoy and who help you disconnect from work. They may also be good connections if the time comes when you need options.
4. Self-care. Life isn’t all work, though many organizations and many people see it that way. Invest in hobbies, friends, community, and religious groups, take classes, do sports—whatever helps you disconnect from work and focus yourself and those you care about is good.
5. Know your alternatives. Some workplaces just won’t improve, and the time may come when you need to make a change. That’s okay. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to walk away.
Like many issues of bias, gender-bias has the potential to persist, but can be counteracted through enhanced awareness and information, explains Stephenson, who is associate professor of management and director of healthcare management programs in the David D. Reh School of Business at Clarkson University. “Recognition and visibility of the problem are crucial to addressing it and mitigating its harmful effects.”
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