Women in Leadership and Perceptual Barriers


‘Women representation at Board level in Fortune 100 increased from ~19% in 2011 to 25% 2017’ ‘Deliberate targets by organizations, as high as 25-30 % in senior bands by 2020’

Above indicate that we are clearly making shifts in positive direction. But just the fact that we have to take deliberate targets of, not even equal, but more than minimum representation itself indicates that this has been such a critical gap.

Look at the entry level data; there is ~60-40 gender distribution which starts to shrink to ~15% by the mid-management level. Why this mass exodus?

Certainly there are barriers; most women around this time go on to start family while demands alongside at work increase. But that alone doesn’t fully explain this leak. And if it were just that why do most women don’t return later. Study shows that women who do not have those reasons also feel stalled in their careers around this time. So it is not just a structural or a systemic problem; there is a big perceptual aspect to it. And ‘perceptual’ is based on stereotypes than facts; the most pervasive form of unconscious bias.

Let’s quickly explore few assumptions through research done for women in mid to sr level.

Assumption #1: Women have softer leadership style

Not true. Research shows that expectation of difference seems to be creating a difference where none really exist; these differences are a product or an artifact of our own expectations.

Assumption #2: There is confidence gap

Not true. The problem with this is that when women do try and break this notion, they violate our stereotypical expectations of what women are supposed to be like and that translates in to some consequences alongside. Eg. Woman’s assertion equates to aggression, but not the same for a man. Basically showing confidence for women doesn’t pay off the way it does for men. Same behavior, different outcomes.

Assumption #3: Women wait to be fully ready while men take the plunge with ~60% readiness

Yes, women are more reluctant to apply for a role unless they fully meet the criteria but that’s not because they don’t believe in their own ability but because they lack confidence in the hirer’s ability to recognize their potential.

Assumption #4: The Merit Paradox

Belief that women’s competence is not worth as much. An emerging body of research says that women have to outperform men to receive a similar performance rating. And that’s because our appraisals systems are quite driven by subjectivity leaving room for biases as much as we would like to believe otherwise.

So what can be done? Above are only few examples. There are many more proven otherwise by research. But we are guided by our perceptions by default. For change to happen faster, three central forces shown in the SOP model, need to act in tandem.


This is individual behavior driven with push back from biases, solidified over centuries. Thanks to mythology, many convenient assumptions masked as ‘duties’ continue to make life difficult for one gender. Career oriented women labeled less caring about family! If a mother travels on work, guilt follows! Night shifts…not as easy a choice for women. These and many more, and the degree may vary depending on one’s social construct. And while the change is taking its course influenced by various factors, this is about everyone taking responsibility for it on a day to day basis.


Organizationally, there is a lot being done already. Infact, feels like, overdone at times, but guess what, sometimes solving ‘A’ problem is so important that a small problem ‘B’ it might create in the process, needs to be sidelined. There is however clearly need for more objectivity in evaluation processes because brain will always have bias. A few steps to consider –

  • Ensure gender neutral language for a blind screening process
  • Diversify your pipeline through proactive sourcing to go beyond the obvious; ask for a diverse range of referrals
  • ‘Gut feel’ for making decisions leaves room for biases; invest in structured interviewing processes; leverage AI
  • Be cautious of nomenclatures in your org policies, processes, cultural lingo that reinforce biases (eg. Maternity leave indicates that child care is a mother’s job only)
  • Label biases; per neuroscience to mitigate a bias the first step is to label it. And have a transparent comm channel where people can surface biases.


This is key.Neither of the above forces can hold the weight of this change, if the third force doesn’t push enough. Remember absorbing a problem could be an indication that it’s not a problem. Couple of quick examples:  

Speaking up at work and playing it down on personal front: Stating your opinion at work but not challenging enough at personal front. The risk of burning bridges is in both places, but still we dread it more in personal environment. Why? Perhaps two reasons: 1). We find it safer to be able to handle it in a professional environment due to cultural push and 2). We don’t want to disturb the peace at home.

Fair enough, but remember by living with what’s not fair at personal front on a day to day basis we set examples for our next generation to follow.

Being the super woman: For women who are managing it all (by choice or by force), it certainly speaks of your ‘doing it all’ capabilities. But just know that you are solidifying this expectation for your daughters to follow and for your sons to lead by. If at work, we are so clear about roles & responsibilities why can’t we try the same unapologetically at home as well. We get what we portray our readiness for! If you are ready to take everyone’s monkeys, you will get more than you ever need. Let respective owners keep their own monkeys and then trust them to manage them.

Bibliography: Key data sources: Dr. Jennifer Whelan’s research consolidation, SHL, Eagly Zenger Folkman, McKiney, KPMG, PSYnapse Pscychometrics, Sheryl Sandberg’s Gender Div report

Previous articleBuilding A Green HR
Next articleDigital HR: What’s next?
Shruti Jaiswal, AVP: Leadership, Talent & Inclusion at Thomson Reuters, carries diverse experience of ~17 years with many multinationals. Shruti is a Neuroscience Coach and is an author of the upcoming book, ‘Does Your Net-Work?’. Shruti has been recognized as ‘Times Power Women – Emerging Thought Leader 2019’ by TOI, ‘Top 40 HR Leaders’ by Jombay and ‘Top 101 T&D Minds’ by World HRD congress. She is a sought after external speaker & panellist & also sits on advisory board of ‘IAPS’.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here