Six Myths About Women Leaders

For too long, there’s been a focus on ‘fixing the women’. Instead, we need to address the systemic barriers that are holding women back. We need to fix the workplace.

By Allyson Zimmermann | Executive Director, Europe, Catalyst

European women do less in the workplace than men with the same qualifications and career history. They are paid less, are stuck swinging on the lower branches of the corporate tree, and are kept away from the juicy assignments linked with advancement.

Why is this? What myths are at play?

Myth 1: “Women are not as ambitious as men”

It is often argued that women choose to throttle back their careers when their children are young. However, Catalyst tested this theory by following the progress of nearly 10,000 male and female MBA graduates from business schools worldwide. We found that women aspire equally, to men, to become the CEO or to reach a similarly high office, but even amongst those who did not have children, the women still lagged behind the men from day one in terms of salary, pay raises and promotions.

Myth 2: “The workplace is a meritocracy”

While aspirational, unfortunately the workplace is more of a mirror-tocracy. Many organisations may have a 'think-leader-think-male' (and probably white male) default and leaders are often recruiting in their own image. This is often an unconscious bias and a comfort level with those who are 'similar', leaving many talented employees, particularly women, on the sidelines, facing frustrating barriers.

Not that long ago, I was one of two women hired to join a largely male brokerage firm, which had recently moved to a new country. Without any HR or administrative infrastructure yet in place, it became clear that the youngest female (who had an MBA and spoke several languages) was selected by the brokers to do the errands. One day, she was sent to buy espresso beans, the next day to buy toilet paper. While two of us challenged this behaviour, and brought it to our superiors' attention, it was clear from the leadership that this was how things were done. Needless to say, I lasted only one week. Years later that same brokerage firm reached out to me to invest funds. I asked about the leadership, which had not changed, and I declined to invest.

Myth 3: “Women lack the necessary skills to make effective leaders

Women and men actually lead quite similarly; however, stereotypes still exist. Women were often seen as having 'taking care' behaviours whilst men were seen as being better at ‘taking charge’ behaviours. The 'caretaker' behaviours included supporting others and rewarding subordinates, while the male leaders were perceived to be more effective at delegating and problem-solving. Simply by virtue of gender, men were perceived to be better leaders.

Women leaders are perceived as “never just right.” They are in a double bind. If they act consistent with gender stereotypes, they are considered too soft. If they go against gender stereotypes, they are considered too tough. Men are given a larger margin of error in how they behave.

It’s important to recognise that women (and men) are not a monolithic group.

Myth 4: “Women don't do the right things to get ahead at work”

Our myth of the ideal worker study shows that despite using the same career strategies as men, women do not get the pay off. Women face career barriers to advancement and only two tactics seem to show an impact on their advancement: 1) making their achievements known and 2) proactively networking with influential others. For example, willingness to work long hours helped men more than women, in terms of advancement.

Myth 5: “Women don't want international assignments”

They do, they are often just not asked. Former EY Chairman and CEO James S. Turley calls this a 'silent problem'. So, make sure your company knows your career goals. Women are no more likely than men to turn down “hot” international assignments that can help their careers, and because 70% of leadership development occurs on the job, this means women are losing out greatly.

Myth 6: “Women don't help other women”

The Queen Bee myth is just that, a myth. Our research finds that women are more likely than men to be developing and helping women advance:

• Sixty-five per cent of women who received career development support are now developing new talent, compared to 56 per cent of men;

• and 73 per cent of the women developing new talent are developing women, compared to only 30 per cent of men.

For too long, there’s been a focus on ‘fixing the women’. Instead, we need to address the systemic barriers that are holding women back. We need to fix the workplace. Organisations need to challenge the decisions made about talent and who gets what projects; the status quo of how things have been done; and to ask better questions to ensure that talent is not being sacrificed to the assumptions made about 'talent'.

A more equitable workforce is good for women and for society as a whole.




Allyson Zimmermann is Executive Director of Catalyst Europe leading the global, non-profit organisation’s strategy to create inclusive workplaces where women and all talent can advance. Follow her on Twitter. Follow Catalyst on Twitter and on their website.