About a year ago, MWWPR conducted a survey about women and leadership where respondents indicated they thought it would take about 100 years before we see gender parity in the workplace, which is as good as saying “never.” We conducted this survey, along with a study about how female executives are treated in the media vs. their male counterparts in conjunction with the launch of HerVoice, a dedicated agency practice for women in leadership. It seemed like a good idea, especially with expectations high about Hillary Clinton breaking the ultimate glass ceiling. Except she didn’t, and to paraphrase Secretary Clinton, we elected someone who looked like other people who had been President before.
Since that time, much has been studied, written and discussed about gender issues in America and gender bias in the workplace. And the conversation reveals deep rooted gender biases as long held as any other cultural bias in our society. We excuse it with conversations about women opting out of the “more competitive careers” to raise families, needing to “fill the pipeline” with more diverse candidates, about the importance of mentorship of women, and yes, about helping women find their leadership voice so they can effectively communicate in a man’s world. Yet the fact remains that there are more men named John than women leading Fortune 500 companies. And none of these explanations really explain that.
This piece from the New York Times shines the light on the problem in a particularly clear way, through a survey of women who were considered for the top job, but didn’t quite get there. They speak of women being held to different standards of performance, difficulty in breaking into all male social circles, and yes, difficulty in their communications styles and self-advocacy. And they speak of their role as the “dependable back-up” – a concept that was so intuitively recognizable to me that it made me catch my breathe. You see, it is precisely that dependability that continues to perpetuate the “explaining away” with references to the need to fill the pipeline or promote mentorship. We depend on women to simply accept these explanations and dependably move forward, quietly cleaning up behind the guy in the top job.
I see it in my own industry. Public relations, particularly on the agency side, is a field where the majority of employees are female. Lots of senior leaders, including practice of divisional leaders, are female. But a quick look at the top agencies reveals that none of the top 10 agencies have a woman at the helm. And it certainly isn’t because there is a lack of diverse talent in the pipeline.
There is a lot of discussion in brand marketing circles about the power of “people like me” – and how our purchasing decisions are influenced by the recommendations of people like me. The same is true for all human behavior – and the people making decisions about top leadership roles default to choosing “people like me” – in this case, other men. And until we can all be honest with ourselves about this, nothing can change.