The reality of gender inequality is too visible to be wished away in the society at large. From
missing girl children in China and India to gross discrimination against them while they
are growing up in terms of education and nutrition, and honour killings when they are of
marriageable age. However, we tend to believe that these ills of society persist because of
illiteracy and narrow world views. Surely, most educated people do not discriminate. All
urban public schools (and increasingly even in semi-urban and rural) seem to be teeming
with as many girls as boys. The number of girls in engineering colleges has been going up steadily
and they now account for more than 30 per cent of fresh chartered accountants. They are also
entering the workforce like never before and many of them – Chanda Kocchar and Indra Nooyi,
for instance - are shakers and movers of the corporate world. It is not uncommon for many
males to have worked under women bosses, especially in the services sector. I have personally
worked with four men and an equal number of women managers. In politics, some of the most
powerful individuals over the past 50 years have been women, including Margaret Thatcher and
Indira Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, and Jayalalitha are currently shaping India’s
politics. Surely, the gender bias diminishes as one moves up the social, economic, or corporate
ladder. But does it?
However, the issue of gender’s impact on leadership is stranger
still. A recent working paper by the faculty of INSEAD, a management
school, titled 'Taking gender into account: Theory and design
for women's leadership programs’ outlines the leadership challenges
that women face, which are very distinct from those faced by their men colleagues. The odds
are actually greater than they appear and biases are more structural and entrenched than meet
the eye. The authors call the roadblocks the ‘second generation’ biases. These are ‘powerful yet
often invisible barriers to women’s advancements that arise from cultural beliefs about gender,
as well as workplace structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently favour
men’ say the authors of the paper. So, what are these invisible landmines?
Management thinkers hold that to become a leader one must internalise a leader identity. This
involves processes through which one sees oneself and comes to be seen by others as a leader.
As a person takes actions aimed at asserting leadership, they are either affirmed or disaffirmed by others, which kick off a positive or a negative spiral.
Positive feedback leads to an accumulation of experiences
and opportunities that convert the initial potential for
leadership into actuality. This increases the motivation to
lead and the risk-taking ability. However, leadership has a
second and equally important dimension - developing an
elevated sense of purpose and connecting others with it.
This allows leaders to rise above their fears and insecurities
and allows them to take, and encourage others to take,
actions despite them. Leaders are most effective when
their purpose is aligned with their personal values and collective
good. When these two are in place, a leader is born!
The prevailing beliefs, practices and structures support
both of these phenomena among males and inhibit
them among women. Cultural beliefs about what it means
to be a leader are very closely aligned with what males
are expected to be – decisive, assertive, and independent. Women, by contrast are seen as friendly,
care-taking, and unselfish, all positive qualities, but not aligned with what it means to be a leader. This
puts women in a double-bind. Those in positions of power are seen either as too aggressive or not
aggressive enough. What appears as self-confident and entrepreneurial in men appears abrasive and
self-promoting among women, say the authors. They add that when women succeed in traditionally
male-dominated roles, they are respected but liked less; and when they conform to feminine stereotypes,
they are liked, but not respected. They are seen as too soft and not assertive enough. They seem to
need to choose between being liked or respected, whereas men
can have the best of both worlds!
Further, a lack of role models tends to inhibit an increase in the
number of role models. People learn new roles by identifying with
role models, and experimenting with provisional identities, and
comparing the results with internal standards and external feedback.
Women have fewer role models they can identify with and whose
styles are congruent with their ‘concept of self. Further, they tend
to have lesser margin for errors which further inhibits experimentation.
Therefore, women rely more on what has worked for them in
the past, whereas men tend to imitate role models and ‘assume’
behavioural patterns that may be unnatural, but work. While women
are feeling their way around, relying on their past experience, men
are quickly rising up the corporate ladder.
about what it means
to be a leader are
very closely aligned
with what males are
expected to be –
decisive, assertive, and
Further, the path to the top is assumed to pass through some roles that are typically male dominated,
such as sales and operations. These assumptions may no more be valid, but continue to linger
and silently discriminate against women. Also, assignments that are considered important for career
enhancements, such as foreign postings, are usually offered to males because it is assumed that their
spouses will come along. Further, companies value heroic and visible achievements, such as busting
strikes or building dams, to silent and behind-the-scenes ones, such as consensus building which
also tend to favour males.
None of these biases are obvious, overt or deliberate. They are not even visible. However, they are
so much a part of the fabric it is hard to even see them in the pattern of behaviours and norms. For
this reason they are also very difficult to address. Collectively, they load the dice against women and
account for the fact that despite storming into the workforce decades ago, women have not made it
to the top. Changing these will require a total re-think of not just the organisational practices, but a
complete overhaul of the set patterns of thinking.