CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - C-Suite Advisory - Why do so many women get fouled in the game of work?

C-Suite Advisory

Why do so many women get fouled in the game of work?

Anneli Blundell

Many studies have shown that women make exemplary leaders in the game of work. Yet, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you reviewed the latest research figures from the 2022 Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s Gender Equality Scorecard. This report shows that men are twice as likely to be in the top earning bracket, and the representation of women in leadership continues to decline as the roles become more senior.

Though there are many factors at play behind these figures, there are two specific ways women get fouled on the field when playing the game of work – a game for the most part, that was originally designed by men, for men. Though the players have changed, the rules to succeed have not and so when today’s talented women play like men, they often get punished for not being ‘ladylike’, and when they play like women, they get punished for not being ‘leaderlike’. Welcome to the myriad ways women get fouled on the field, in the game of work.

The ‘ladylike’ foul

When women take on advice to be more ‘leaderlike’ at work (think: authoritative, direct, assertive), they are not seen to take on leadership behaviours, but the behaviours of men. As a result, they receive negative feedback because they are not acting like ‘typical’ women (think: humble, helpful, supportive). When men are told they need to speak up, be more visible and put their ideas on the table, they can simply do so and the job is done.

When a woman is told the same thing and responds in the same way, she’s seen as ‘aggressive’ not assertive, or ‘arrogant’ rather than confident. What gives? Enter social backlash. This is the whistle that blows when women are playing out of bounds in the game of work. Playing by society’s rules for being a lady, violates society’s rules for being a leader. Bzzzz! The whistle blows. (Woman can’t be nice and effective, can they?). Women are fouled from the game.

The ‘leaderlike’ foul

When women act ‘ladylike’ over ‘leaderlike’ (that is, within the expectations of their gender stereotype), they are fouled for being incompetent. Not because they are incompetent, but because they are being benchmarked against a different (and stubbornly pervasive) version of competence – the male model. Again, it’s not because it’s right, but because it’s what we’ve known for so long. When most leaders are men, it’s hard to shake the unconscious link between male behaviours and successful leadership behaviours (despite the clearly established efficacy of women’s leadership styles). Women leading like women experience a performance backlash, because they may not appear as ‘leaderlike’. Their value is less visible and they have to work harder to be seen as competent. For many women, perception trumps performance, in the game of work.

Women are judged on how well they are perceived to fit into a role, rather than how much they actually do fit into a role. As an example of this, in 2005, researchers at Yale University put a group of subjects through a recruitment simulation. Their job was to hire the right candidate to fill the role of Police Chief. They were given two choices – a streetwise but well-liked police officer without much formal education, and a highly educated, polished official with little field experience; the classic books smarts versus street smarts.

The participants were firstly asked to rate the two candidates by education versus street experience, and secondly to rate the importance of each criterion to the role itself. That is, is it more important for the Police Chief to have book smarts or street smarts? Here’s where it gets interesting. As outlined in the resulting research article, ‘Constructed criteria: Redefining merit to justify discrimination’, when people evaluated the resumes of the fake candidate called ‘Michael’, they amplified whatever factor he had the most of.

So, when he was shown as having more street smarts, that’s what got a higher importance rating; when he was shown as having more book smarts, that’s what got the tick for being most important. These results didn’t flow through for our fake female candidate ‘Michelle’, who received no such concessions, either way. The upshot was, the people in the study thought the job would be better suited to a male candidate, and switched the required criteria accordingly. Perception trumps performance. Women get fouled again.

How to stay in the game

As disheartening as it is to be penalized for playing by the current rules, it’s also liberating. It’s not until we know what’s going on that we can change what’s going on. Men and women both can challenge the stereotypes of high performance and leadership and shatter the status quo of the accepted yet outmoded model. And this is good for everyone. It’s time to accept that high performance at work comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s time to change the rules, remove the fouls and let more people win at the game of work.

Written by Anneli Blundell.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - C-Suite Advisory - Why do so many women get fouled in the game of work?
Anneli Blundell
Anneli Blundell is a leadership specialist and author of The Gender Penalty: Turning obstacles into opportunities for women at work.

Anneli Blundell is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.