Leadership Challenges: Women in Leadership

Janet W. Hagen, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA

Last year at this time we were going through some of the toughest economic times that most of us have ever faced in our lifetime. At this writing the last quarter GDP was positive although we know that any drop in unemployment takes longer to follow even if the growth is sustained. As Harry Truman famously said in 1958 -it's a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it's a depression when you lose yours. Here in Wisconsin we faculty, as state employees, can look forward to at least another year of mandatory furloughs to help balance the state budget. Our colleagues in other states face similar hardships and our nonprofits report even harder times.

Even before the current economic crisis, women were having difficulty making headway in leadership positions. Statistics commonly reported by both governmental agencies as well as nonprofit organizations such as Catalyst are: 50% of people in the workforce are women. 50% of middle managers are women. 60% of college graduates are women. Yet in Fortune 500 companies only 4 - 5% of top wage earners are women. Only 8% have high ranking positions, sometimes called positions with "clout" and only 2% are CEOs. Further, the U.S. General Accounting Office report on the glass ceiling for 2000 found full-time women managers earned just 73 cents for every dollar earned by men which is not attributable to education, age, marital status, or race. This inability of women to move beyond middle-management has been termed the "glass ceiling" since the early to mid 1980s. The official "glass ceiling" report was released in 1991 and followup charting little progress has been made by several organizations since then.

Culturally based, often unconscious, bias is at the core of the "glass ceiling." To summarize the findings to date: Women with the same credentials as men are routinely evaluated lower than men. This is less dramatic in traditionally female fields such as teaching and nursing and more dramatic in traditionally male fields such as manufacturing or construction. Women as well as men consistently evaluate women with the same credentials lower than men. Gender stereotypes are pervasive and hard to eradicate but not impossible. Symphony orchestras found a simple yet successful solution - require auditions behind a screen! The number of female musicians increased dramatically; nonetheless this required a commitment to fairness and willingness to examine potential bias on a personal as well as organizational level.

The leadership challenge to each of us is to examine our own, and our organizations' bias and then to take steps to challenge behavior and employment practices that may be discriminatory. Those of us who teach, for example can learn from the the 1992 American Association of University Women report How Schools Shortchange Girls. While written for primary and secondary education some concepts are universal: both male and female teachers attend more to male students than female students and less tolerant of disruptive behavior from female students than male students. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously said "well-behaved women rarely make history."

Cultural learning and expectations also hinder women in their own leadership skill development. A summary of the research includes the need for skill development in: directness of communication, negotiation skills, solicitation of experiences that will expand skill sets, delegating, mentoring and rule-breaking. The AAUW report discussed reported that girls start elementary school with similar behavior as boys but by middle school have learned to measure their success by their friendships and their looks instead of their achievements. The strongest detrimental message to women is to always "be nice."

(For an excellent summary of research on women and leadership and more details about some of the skills discussed above, see Women and Leadership by Crystal L. Hoyt in Peter Northhouse Leadership: Theory and Practice, 2007)

The leadership challenge in this area, then, is to again be aware of the culturally expectations of women that can hinder leadership development. Further, those skills that enhance leadership must be taught, expected and modeled. Again, this requires requires the willingness to examine potential bias on a personal as well as organizational level both in our own institutions and in the institutions in which our students will be employed. An unconscious bias that one fails to correct is as insidious as one that is overt, perhaps more?


This article was published in Human Services Today, Fall 2009 , Volume 6, Issue 1 .
http://hst.coehs.uwosh.edu This article may be freely distributed for educational purposes provided above copyright information is included.

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