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Where are the Women in Leadership?

Janet Crawford Cascadance
February 19, 2014
When it comes to discussion about the absence of women in leadership, there’s something in the air. In the past year, articles, books, and studies have flooded the press, so much so that a new term has emerged: Gender fatigue.

As a female scientist in my early fifties, I’ve lived with this question my entire adult life.  In the early 1980s, I was on the forefront of a movement of women into science and leadership and I naively assumed that equity of representation and pay would soon follow. The numbers, however, tell a very different story.

Despite legal advances worldwide and more women participating in the formal workforce than ever before, an astonishingly low percentage of world leaders, corporate executives, and participants in the innovation ecosystem are women. We represent fewer than five percent of CEO positions in the Fortune 1000, four percent of senior level venture capitalists, and three percent of hedge fund managers.

Numbers have increased incrementally over the past three decades, but progress at the top is in stark contrast to the more than 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women. This isn’t just because they haven’t had time to climb the leadership ladder. Case in point: women have earned roughly half of law degrees since the mid 1990s, but leadership statistics in the legal profession remain dramatically lopsided.


The discussion often focuses on the role of childbearing for women, but this explanation is also inadequate. In 2013, The Pew Research Center found that women are the primary wage earners in 40 percent of U.S. families. The gap is in the positions women hold and their access to entrepreneurial funding.

Perhaps surprising is that the most damaging source of inequality involves no conscious intent to exclude women. The human brain is a highly sophisticated pattern recognition machine. We are built to replicate the culture in which we are immersed and we unconsciously map the environment around us. Whatever we are accustomed to seeing becomes what we recognize as normal. We look at a boardroom filled with men and nothing stands out as missing – it fits our unconscious pattern recognition.

Neuroscience shows us that nearly all the brain’s decisions are made outside of consciousness. These unconscious templates guide choices on the part of both men and women, creating an implicit bias even among those who consciously wish to promote women.

We are immersed in a culture filled with images of masculine leadership with relatively few counterexamples. The Geena Davis Institute found in an analysis of G-rated films produced between 2006 and 2009, men were almost four times as likely to be portrayed as working professionals, and significantly, no women were shown in law, medicine, politics or executive leadership.

This lack of representation permeates popular media, informing the neural pattern recognition that shapes our choices and behavior. Even very small amounts of bias result in dramatic differences in the number of women that reach the top. Until bias is made visible, it trumps conscious values, resulting in well-meaning people perpetuating the prevailing biases of the culture.

In addition, business culture favors the masculine perspective, not because of an intention to harm women, but because men designed it. We know what masculine leadership looks like, but the contributions of feminine leadership often remain invisible. Qualified women are not promoted and included because their values and traits don’t fit what leadership traditionally has looked like, both physically and archetypally.

This creates a double hurdle for women. We can succeed in a “man’s world,” but often at high psychological or physiological cost. Many women drop out of the leadership track or start their own businesses rather than “leaning in” to a system that wasn’t build to recognize or reward their strengths and contributions.

Aside from fairness, though, what’s the business case for involving more women in leadership and innovation? Most obvious is that women comprise roughly fifty percent of the world’s population and influence 85 percent of purchasing decisions. Inclusion of women in the innovation and design process is simply good business.

Research out of MIT suggests that group intelligence is correlated with the number of women on a team. New research from Gallup found that retail stores with more gender diversity experienced a significantly higher revenue growth rate.

From a global perspective, the developing world represents a huge market opportunity. Not only are women in these regions more in touch with the daily challenges of life, making their design input invaluable, they are also more likely to re-invest profit into the community causing a multiplier effect.

Most important, women possess a host of feminine leadership qualities increasingly becoming recognized as essential to successful 21st century business endeavors. Women’s initiatives make the issue about women, when it should be treated as a pressing business issue that includes all of us.

There is no one answer, but four things are imperative:

  1. Raise awareness of implicit bias and create programs to combat it

  2. Change the conversation. This is a business issue, not a just a women’s issue.

  3. Depolarize the conversation and enroll men in the movement to gender equity, and

  4. Create workplaces that recognize and reward both feminine and masculine leadership styles

To be honest, I suffer a bit from “gender fatigue” myself, but my niece is nine years old.  She’s a science geek just like her dad and her aunt. My hope for her, and for all of us, is that by the time she’s in her fifties, we’ll have moved to a new conversation.

Janet Crawford is founder of Cascadance and the Women & Innovation Lab. She is a pioneer in the application of biology and neuroscience to organizational leadership and culture. This is the third piece in an Ideas Lab special series about Innovation coming from the Global Innovation Summit.

Where are the Women in Leadership? was originally published on Ideas Lab

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