When Roya Ayman, director and professor of industrial organizational psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, moved to Chicago with a new degree and job 30 years ago, she was deferred from a mortgage loan for being high risk.
When she inquired as to why, the mortgage broker said, “You’re a woman, and you’re single,” to which she replied, “I’m a woman, and I’m single, and I have a Ph.D. How worse could my life get? If I get married, I’ll marry a husband with a job. Our income will only increase. Whereas a man in my exact position may marry a woman who’s not working, so that household’s total income can decline.”
While the broker seemed to agree, he told her rules were rules.
The mortgage broker is not alone in stigmatizing women’s abilities. When a group of more than 300 kindergarten through eighth grade public school students was asked to draw their perception of which gender would make a better leader, the young boys picked more male than female figures — 89 percent drew males — whereas 43 percent of young girls’ drawings also included male leaders. Those findings come from a study by Ayman and Saba Ayman-Nolley, a developmental psychology professor and chairman of psychology at Northeastern University, and published in Implicit Leadership Theories: Essays And Explorations
by Birgit Schyns and James R. Meindl.
Yet such outdated perceptions — most often made by men — are wrong and damaging organizations’ potential to acquire and identify top talent, according to Jack Zenger, CEO of leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman.
“HR leaders today talk a lot about having a talent shortage,” Zenger said. “But they have a wonderful talent pool inside their organizations they’re not fully utilizing. Before you poach outside your organizations, look at your women. If you promote them into leadership positions, they do well, and they’re perceived positively by their co-workers. The problem is they’re rarely given a chance.”
Earlier this month Zenger Folkman released an analysis of more than 7,200 male and female leaders from a wide variety of industries around the globe. The analysis reinforced some seemingly eternal truths about male and female leaders in the workplace.
But the results also provided some surprises.
Of the 16 competencies Zenger Folkman measures through 360-degree assessments that differentiate high performers from others, women excelled at 12 of the 16.
Furthermore, two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been considered male dominated.
Men outscored women significantly on only one management competence — the ability to develop a strategic perspective.
The bias for most respondents held that females would be better at nurturing competencies such as developing others and relationship building. While this may be true, the competencies with the largest differences between males and females were taking initiative, practicing self development, integrity/honesty and driving for results.
“People who are at senior levels tend to get higher scores on strategic thinking,” Zenger said. “The fact that there are less women in that upper level, that it’s not something we currently expect, might explain that study finding.”
The majority of leaders — 64 percent — interviewed were men. And the higher the level, the more men there were. In the survey sample, 78 percent of top managers, 67 percent at the next level down and 60 percent at the manager level below that were men.
“There’s a talented group of unnoticed people that deserve to have the same investment you’re giving their male counterparts to move to these higher positions,” Zenger said. “It’s time to move beyond old patterns because women can think just as long-term as men; see the big picture and the detailed focus on competitors, the industry and what’s happening globally. And there’s nothing that gives men an advantage in any of those regards.”
Of the 15 functions the survey studied, women were rated more positively in 12. Some of the largest gaps in attendance were in functions that tended to be male dominated — such as sales, product development, legal, engineering, IT, and research and development. The percentage of women leaders represented in these functions ranged from 13 to 33 percent.
“Whether or not women are as effective and strategic as men is not the question,” Ayman said. “It’s the interpretation of women’s behavior that’s affecting everything.”
Ayman said men too often assume women are not interested in leadership roles and would rather be caregivers at home. Only when women display masculine features are they considered equal to men, Ayman said.
“Women don’t get included, don’t get considered, because no one has an image of them in high leadership roles,” she said. “All around the world, the people in the highest levels of an organization are most often men. These men’s vision of a person to replace them or fill up a similar gap is a person that looks like them, acts like them. If they do choose a woman, it’s too often in a position where she’s destined to fail.”
Ayman painted Barack Obama’s presidential win in 2008 in a similar light.
“Nobody could have saved the country from the mess we were in, but society gave the first black president a chance — a chance in the worst condition with not a lot of support. Too often male leaders do this with women. They say, ‘You want to be a leader? Here you go, it’s all yours, I’m gone.’ Without encouragement, anybody will fail.”Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@CLOmedia.com.