The Politics of Women in Leadership

October 25, 2016“The whole point of the theory of implicit bias—the reason why it can fairly be attributed to everyone—is that it’s not an accusation of guilt or bigotry. It’s an acknowledgment of the human condition.”William Saletan

It’s no secret that women face barriers on their way to the top. The good news? Many or even most of these barriers in the workplace are unintended. The bad news? Many people don’t even realize they are inherently biased, which is what can create these barriers in the first place. Unconscious biases are implicit associations that:

  • Operate beyond our control and awareness.
  • Inform our perception of a person or social group.
  • Can influence our decision-making and behavior toward the target of the bias.

Recognizing these biases in the workplace—and, most importantly, in a person’s everyday life—is a big deal and should be addressed. This is particularly true for women, who despite working as hard as men and striving as high, are held back in a number of ways. They are less likely to be given access to the assignments they need to advance—“hot jobs” such as visible assignments and mission-critical roles. In addition, women are also unwittingly subject to the double-bind, whereby because they are often evaluated against a “masculine” standard of leadership, women are left with limited and unfavorable options, no matter how they behave and perform as leaders.

Due to people’s inherent biases, which lead them to associate more often with those who are most familiar to themselves, women are often locked out of career-developing relationships with senior executives and those in the C-suite who could put their names forward for those hot jobs. And, in a world where women are still in the minority in senior roles, their unique opinions and perspectives—those that differ from those of the men in charge—are often not valued, leading to not only missed opportunities for companies, but also feelings of exclusion in women.

In fact, Catalyst’s new report, The Day-to-Day of Experiences of Workplace Inclusion and Exclusion, highlights that most of us feel both included and excluded at work on a daily basis. In other words, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and that can be a dilemma for many leaders. 

For women in leadership, it’s critically important to understand that obstacles occur no matter what we do. Women who aspire to the top experience them. Women who use the same “ideal worker” strategies as men—such as learning unwritten rules, seeking visibility, and networking—still experience them. So while women are stepping up and doing all the right things to get ahead, they are still being held back because of biases.

All you need to do is take a quick look at today’s political climate to see how this plays out on the larger stage. As the first woman on a major party ticket runs for President of the United States, biases (unconscious or otherwise) abound. Men hold 80% of House of Representatives and Senate seats and 80% of leadership positions in corporate America. And since women face biting judgment about their gender, experience, likability, and even their appearance, it’s clear that bias is still very much a factor. 

This subtle yet inherent bias was most recently highlighted in the news by the women of the Obama administration. They came to an agreement that when a woman made an important point in a meeting, the other women would repeat it, giving clear credit to its originator and forcing the men in the room to recognize the contribution, denying them the chance to claim the idea as their own.

And, while all women experience a lack of opportunity and access relative to white men, there are distinct additional workplace burdens experienced by many women of color. In our new data—exclusively curated for ESSENCE magazine—Catalyst looked specifically at the experiences of Black women and men who may not feel valued for their unique contributions and may feel set apart at work based on their gender, race, and ethnicity. We call this the “Emotional Tax” and it has associated detrimental effects on health, well-being, and the ability to thrive at work for many Black professionals (as well as other communities of color). Our hope is to validate the lived experiences of Black women and men, encouraging leaders to take actions that make everyone feel included.

I don’t want to paint a bleak picture, because the good news is that all of these biases can be addressed at both the organizational and individual level. Here are a few ways:

  • Pay attention to everyday interactions, build strong relationships, collaborate with others, and lead open and transparent conversations. These personal connections with colleagues are vital and can go a long way toward making people feel valued and heard. 
  • Men can take several powerful actions to help women’s career development. The first is sponsorship—advocating for colleagues and putting their names forward for crucial assignments. While those in high-level positions have the most leverage to do that, sponsorship is something that anyone can do. It not only helps women colleagues have access to more opportunities, but sponsors also get recognized for identifying and nurturing top talent.
  • Secondly, men can offer “air cover”—providing protection and support when others encounter difficulty in their efforts to innovate and deliver results. This empowers their women colleagues to have their ideas fairly heard and considered, and helps make those colleagues feel their contributions are valued.
  • Lastly, a strategy that anyone can employ is having the courage to defend and support women colleagues’ innovative ideas, especially those that may be risky or unpopular. Often “outside the box” ideas can be extremely profitable for companies, yet it’s exactly those ideas that can be hard to get approved.

Have you experienced workplace bias or politics? Share an example or story below about how you handled it. Your story might be featured on our social channels.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.