Women face invisible barriers in their leadership roles

Women face invisible barriers in their leadership roles
Women are perceived to be nurturing with empathy; therefore, when they demonstrate ambition, result orientation, and assertiveness, they are given feedback on the expected behavior as women leaders.

Organizations aspire to improve women’s representation at a leadership level. However, there is a continuous debate on whether it adheres to compliance, tokenism, or sustainability in the name of adhering to compliance, tokenism, or sustainability.

The Companies Act, 2013 (Act) first introduced a provision mandating a woman director and laid the groundwork for the beginning of adequate representation in Indian boardrooms; the pertinent question is, do they have a seat at the table?

Are they heard and impact the organization’s critical decision-making? Are they still considered to be effective only in leading enabling functions? 

While women have reached the top, there are some invisible barriers faced by women leaders- 

Gender and Leadership

The definition of leadership is constantly evolving. There are some unsaid gender stereotypes about women as leaders. Leadership is now a delicate balance between head and heart; however, women as leaders still experience descriptive biases.

There is an unsaid expectation from women leaders to be more aware of their ecosystem, the way they speak, the way they approach, their conversations, and conduct.

Situations become tricky, especially when they are the first women leaders in the organization or the replacement of a man. Gender stereotypes-based expectations influence people’s perception of a leader. These expectations also pressure women to fit in and behave in a particular manner as leaders. 

Gender stereotypes are generalizations about the attributes of men and women that are shared in a society and include both descriptive components (i.e., describing how women and men are) and prescriptive components (i.e., prescribing how women and men should or should not be; Burgess & Borgida, 1999; Eagly & Karau, 2002; Glick & Fiske, 1999; Heilman, 2012).

The gender stereotypes most relevant to the domain of leadership are those maintaining that “women take care” and “men take charge” (Dodge et al., 1995; Heilman, 2001; Hoyt, 2010). As per the descriptive stereotypes, women are communal and warm (Fisk et al.,2007; Heliman,2001).

At the same time, men are stereotyped often with agentic characteristics such as being confident and assertive. Agentic characteristics are frequently seen as requisite traits for leadership (dodge, Gilray and Fenxel,1995; Kornig et al., 2011; Rudman et al.,2012).

However, empirical investigations have cited that women who behave agentic are not well accepted. They may experience a backlash for violating the prescriptive stereotype of being communal.

Women are perceived to be nurturing with empathy; therefore, when they demonstrate ambition, result orientation, and assertiveness, they are given feedback on the expected behavior as women leaders.

Irrespective of gender, a delicate balance of agentic and communal characteristics is inevitable for an effective leader. Organizations promote women in leadership roles or advise women to seek leadership roles proactively.

There is a gap between the preconceived notion of women as leaders and the qualities and experiences people associate with leaders. Organizations must bridge the gap through the right ecosystem and provide a level playing field. 

Internal Mobility and Growth

Several women leaders have experienced loneliness at the top. With enough role models, it also becomes more accessible for women to have demonstrations of women leaders.

Women are often evaluated myopically on performance rather than the potential for next-level roles. They need more sponsorship and mentorship to promote their potential within the organization.

Frequently, these subtle biases that persist in organizations disrupt the learning cycle of women at the heart of becoming leaders.

Leadership involves a fundamental identity shift. Over time, an aspiring leader acquires a reputation as having or not having high potential. At an entry level, the JDs are gender agnostic to have a fair women representation.

However, the experience maps and success profiles of leadership roles are yet to evolve as gender agnostic and do not keep successful men who have held those roles. 

The Competence-Likeability Trade-off

How is the new women leader who has joined? She is nice. They are nurturing, caring, understanding, power-dressing, and intimidating but good. Such conversations make us wonder about the competency of a women leader.

In one of the interviews with Hillary Clinton, she rightly said that the story is never what she says, as much as we want it to be. The story is always how she looked when she said it. The upbringing of women is to be a good girl. A choice between being respected as well as being liked.

The constant juggle between striking a perfect balance through moderating femininity and softening a hard-changing style. It requires much time and energy, eventually draining women as leaders.

Therefore, the purpose of a leader and aligning that purpose with role fitment is essential. Leadership is about learning complex skills and required practice.

It does ask to transition from the previous role, mindset, and skill set and acquire new ones. Therefore, organizations should create safe workspaces for leaders, irrespective of gender, to learn, experiment and grow. 

Overcome One’s Self-Limiting Belief

Women quickly get into a guilt trap. A guilt trap of not being a primary caretaker at home, spending enough time with a child, taking some time off, and giving time to oneself.

If women choose, we must also make peace with the choice. It is essential to ask, call out, and share one’s perspective when one feels right be it a boardroom, meeting room or one’s home.

There is a thin line between accommodating and compromising. When women start feeling that they are compromising while moving up the career ladder, it chokes them. Everyone has a different starting point, life experiences, and narrative. Authenticity and vulnerability in leadership go hand in hand.

Women should not shy away from being vulnerable. At the same time, they should not shy away from sharing their ability to perform and their potential to accept challenges.  As per research, women can bring unique and essential perspectives and priorities that promote positive social outcomes and greater ethical accountability. (Eagly et al., 2014).

The organizations need to take a call on whether they want to strengthen women in leadership or women as leaders. Women as leaders are hired, assessed, and developed further on their ability to fit in the role and organization without compromising meritocracy. 


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