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Resolving the Conflict Between “Woman” and “Leader”

Women may face more barriers to leadership if there is a perceived conflict between their professional role and their gender. Organisations must detect any gender bias and promote a positive view of women leaders.

Two generally agreed-upon facts characterise the state of gender equality in today’s workplace. The first is that despite increased attention paid to gender disparities, society’s archetypal business leader is still a man. The second is that, thanks to enormous, painstaking efforts by women and their advocates, this situation is changing, but very slowly.

This is despite the tangible benefits of gender-diverse leadership. One might expect the curve of change to get steeper with each year, but that hasn’t happened. According to the International Labour Organisation, if the current rate of progress holds, we won’t see pay equality between men and women until 2086 at the earliest.It seems there are hidden factors gumming up the gears, at least some of which can presumably be ascribed to second-generation gender bias.

Unlike overt discrimination, this bias often operates in ways that are hard for women to define and easy for men to deny. The current state of play also has other consequences which may continue to restrain female advancement. My research shows it can also affect women’s self-perceptions, forcing an internal conflict between their identification as a woman and taking on a leader identity. One key to resolving this conflict—and likely launching more women into the upper echelons—is to make sure the “think-leader-think-male” stereotype is not reinforced though company policies and practices. Another is to allow women to feel positive about their gender identity.

Identity ConflictIt is important to remember that stereotypes are not fixed things; they can self-perpetuate. An organisation secretly in thrall to gender stereotypes delivers to its members the implicit message that men, and the assertive behaviour traditionally associated with being male, are a more natural fit for leadership. This works against even those women for whom such behaviour comes easily, as they may be judged harshly for the same actions and attitudes that draw praise coming from a man. Identity conflict starts to develop, as women begin to see their gender and leadership identities as incompatible.

Read more: Resolving the Conflict Between “Woman” and “Leader” | INSEAD Knowledge

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