How masculine norms exclude women from leadership roles in the workplace

women leadership

Norms about masculine behaviour and its fit with leadership are barriers to women. They cause women to moderate their own expectations and guide decision makers’ choices about leadership potential and ability, writes Dr. Karen Morley

A senior leader recently likened the impact of masculine norms on her daughter’s ambition to acid rain. She’d started her career as confident and ambitious, articulate about what she wanted to achieve. However, over time, she began to give up on her dreams of success. Like acid rain, her interest in her ‘big career’ was eroding.

Confidence remains a common feature in the discussion about women, ambition and leadership. Our usual solution is to encourage or exhort women to ‘be confident’.

Self-assessment is a flawed way to identify leadership potential. What’s the alternative? There are good tools available for organisations to systematically reduce the impact of masculine norms on leader identification.

Confidence is something that we expect from men, not women
Confidence fits with the stereotype of masculine, dominant behaviour, which is also consistent with our beliefs about leadership.

However, ‘confidence’ creates a bind for women. It contradicts the female stereotype of women as supporters not leaders; submissive, kind and caring. If women conform to the stereotype they’re not suitable leadership material. Yet when they act with confidence, they are penalised for being ‘more manly than the men’.

The senior leader’s story highlights that women may be confident to begin with; they don’t lack a ‘confidence gene’. At work they moderate their confidence to fit in; and that means they miss out.

Norms about masculine behaviour and its fit with leadership are barriers to women. They cause women to moderate their own expectations and guide decision makers’ choices about leadership potential and ability.

What happens if we take gender out of the equation for a moment, and ask a different question; what is the value of confidence to leadership? Expressing confidence in your own leadership capability is an almost guaranteed entrée to the high potential track. But Is confidence as important as we think it is?

Confidence fits with the stereotype of masculine, dominant behaviour, which is also consistent with our beliefs about leadership.

Confidence is a flawed indicator of leadership
Confidence is how good you think you are at something. Competence, on the other hand, is how good you are at something.

Confidence trumps competence in our self-assessments. A study of over 20,000 people compared their self-rated intelligence with actual scores and found less than 10 per cent overlap. The same results have been found in studies of academic performance, social skills and job performance.

Men exaggerate their ability at double the rate of women, and on this basis are more likely to be chosen for leadership roles. In one study, women were 30% less likely to be chosen despite having the same competence rating.

If you mistake confidence for competence you get incompetence
Alarmingly, those most lacking in competence make the least accurate evaluations of their talents. Most competent people tend to underestimate their expertise; the more you know, the more aware you become of how much there is to know.

Leaders who appear confident, regardless of their competence, can be very convincing. We are more likely to believe they have leadership potential. We prefer to listen to them than to someone who expresses doubts or identifies gaps, even if they are voicing those concerns because they are confident. We mistake doubt for a lack of confidence, and therefore a lack of leadership.

Self-assessment is a flawed way to identify leadership potential. What’s the alternative? There are good tools available for organisations to systematically reduce the impact of masculine norms on leader identification. Yet they are not used as much as they should be. Seventy-five per cent of HR leaders from top global companies say that the subjective opinion of the person’s boss is the most common way to identify leadership potential. Given the potential for affinity bias, that is, to choose people most like ourselves, this is as flawed as self-assessment.

It is a wiser decision to rely on unconfident, competent individuals
Let’s add gender back in. Many research studies have shown no gender differences in actual confidence levels. In a study of hundreds of European engineers, the only difference found was that women feel more confident than we judge them to be.

Unconfident competent people prepare more for leadership roles, are more cautious and look for risks and obstacles, which improves their performance. And they are more likely to be women.

Confidence is how good you think you are at something. Competence, on the other hand, is how good you are at something.

Despite that, for women to be seen as influential leadership material, they need to be seen as confident and competent (masculine norms) as well as caring (a female norm). Men need to be seen only as confident. While they remain, these masculine norms for leadership set a much higher barrier to entry for women. Rather than expect women to become more confident, we should downplay the primacy given to confidence, and instead prioritise competence.

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