Do we give women leaders a hard time?

From Theresa May to Marissa Mayer, senior women are scrutinised more than men. And it's all our fault.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 23 Mar 2017

Do female leaders have a harder time than their male counterparts? Well yes, of course. There’s abundant evidence that women start their careers as equals with men, but at each successive stage of advancement fewer and fewer of them make the cut. By the time you get to board level, women comprise less than 30% of directors (even then only after some heavy NED-loading) and only 6% of FTSE 100 CEOs. They’re overused statistics, but they’re true nonetheless.

But that wasn’t the question, was it? The question was whether we give women leaders a hard time. You and me.

It’s a question I’ve been asking here and there in recent weeks (see below for a sample of your responses). Unsurprisingly, no one stood up and said they just really like to make life difficult for women bosses.

Indeed, several female leaders were adamant that they hadn’t had a harder time in their careers – that is to say, that as a society we haven’t been unduly tough on them. To be honest they seemed a little frustrated by the question, and why wouldn’t they be? Successful people rarely want to play the victim, after all, they just want to get on with it.

But most people recognised what they saw as double standards in the way senior women are treated. ‘I have never seen an article about the shoes David Cameron wore, but newspapers can fill a page about Theresa May’s heels,’ says Sam Boothroyd, founder of online accountants Rhymer Associates. ‘What importance does that have on whether she can run the country or not?’

Politicians may be an unusual case - it's hard to imagine May didn't know the papers would write about her leopard kitten heels - but it applies more widely too. In business, women are consistently asked about their personal life in a way men aren’t, says Billie Gianfrancesco, PR manager of online estate agency Yopa (an observation backed up by this American study, which also indicates women CEOs are much more widely criticised in a crisis).

‘I’ve spent my career securing interviews for business leaders, both male and female. The women are almost always grilled on their age, relationship status, family life and career struggles. Their male counterparts are asked questions about their business, career history, vision for the future and successes,’ she says.

Even when women leaders are taken as seriously as the men, it can be a poisoned chalice, says diversity and inclusion consultant Stephen Frost. ‘In male-dominated societies women often cannot be both liked and perceived as competent at the same time. We call this the "double bind". Take Hilary Clinton for example – the more she had "gravitas" the less likeable she was to many men (and women), yet when she showed a more feminine side, her "stamina" was brought into question.’

It’s easy to lay much of the blame for this on us journalists. The fourth estate, after all, sets the agenda, writes the headlines and asks the silly questions about shoes. This is all true. Guilty as charged. Maybe the humble hack hasn’t ‘been the change they want to see in the world’, from an ethical point of view.

But the dirty truth of journalism is that we write about what we think people want to read. So if people want to read about Theresa May’s Jimmy Choos but not David Cameron’s Church’s, journalists will write about it.


Why men really earn more than women - in three charts


Increasingly in the age of the social network, you can’t blame it all on the media. Everyone who makes a comment on Facebook or in the pub is guilty of essentially the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale.

That may sound like a cop-out, but the problem really is bigger than any one group. It's in our culture. What you’ve got here, a wincing plumber might say, is a mutually-reinforcing complex of widely-held unconscious biases and structural inequalities. Nasty.

So we do collectively, unintentionally give women leaders a hard time. Why? Because our hidden biases tell us that power, success, competence and leader are all ‘male’ words. Why? Because our leaders have mostly always been male.

The solution seems obvious. ‘There are not enough women in senior positions,’ says Marija Butkovic, co-founder of tech firms Kisha Smart Umbrella and Women of Wearables. ‘You cannot be what you cannot see. That’s why women need more role models.’

To be treated fairly, women can’t be outliers at the top. We need to promote more of them. That doesn't mean we should give them an easy time. We shouldn’t give anyone an easier time, or a harder time, just a fair shot.

That’s a lot easier said than done, given that we're not being consciously unfair. But unless we are aware of our biases – and that means asking ourselves difficult questions, the answers to which we may not like – we’ll never make things better.


Do you think we give women leaders a hard time? Here's what some of you said:

‘In business, when people meet a well-dressed, confident male leader, they assume he has earned the role because of his track record. Women who are well-presented and confident are still perceived as "a bitch" and continually have to prove themselves. I’m the MD of the company, but I’ve had people on the phone who have specifically asked to speak to a man in the department to talk about something technical.’ – Jacqueline O’Donovan, MD of construction waste firm O’Donovan Waste Disposal

‘Too few women CEOs are visible and so those that are tend to be subjected to the "pedestal before the push" treatment. Too much concentration focuses on a small group of women and therefore they end up being overscrutinised and penalised for every mistake. When women make mistakes, it’s a running news cycle for months. When men make mistakes, it does not spark headlines in the same way.’ – Dana Denis-Smith, founder and CEO of Obelisk Legal Support

‘We’ve been conditioned to expect our leaders to be men. In the past that’s led to a lot of women thinking in order to get on, they need to be "she-men". Today’s women want to be able to bring their handbags into the boardroom and succeed on their terms. There is still a long way to go though in how women leaders are perceived.’ – Suzanne Ross, senior lecturer at Nottingham Business School and designer of the Women Trailblazers programme

‘In my experience women hold themselves to high, sometimes unrealistic, standards and expect the same from one another. In the voluntary sector, where most leaders are women, it is sometimes the case that female peers judge one another more harshly, on a range of things from childcare to clothes rather than the quality of their work and decisions.’ – Alison Goddard, chief executive of Lincolnshire Action Trust

‘Having been in top leadership roles for over 10 years, I have definitely seen a bias, particularly when women are not satisfied with results. They will often be labelled aggressive or even hysterical. When in situation of conflicts, we naturally feel threatened and thus, our biases get accentuated. However I have also seen many women (including myself) leverage our feminine side, and lower numbers in top management, to our advantage. Its neither black or white.’ -  Anne de Kerckhove, CEO of Iron

‘At the beginning of my career, I felt that some of my ideas were not being heard at the same volume as my male counterparts. It was difficult but sometimes you have to persist and be a pain in the neck and fight for what you believe is right for your organisation.   

‘Now, after so many years of discussing gender issues, I believe that gender should be completely irrelevant in the business world – good businesses are run by good leaders, whatever their gender. This is why, today, I believe quotas are necessary to solve inequality at the board level. Unfortunately, it seems only this option can start to effect the change in mindset that is clearly needed in this modern business world.’ – Jean Stephens, CEO of RSM International

Image credit: World Economic Forum/Wikipedia

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