‘We can’t find good women leaders’

Is there really a lack of good women leaders? Then why is it that women are saying they do not have opportunities to use their leadership gifts and skills?

It seems there is a problem. Working in the NGO sector, I am perplexed by this refrain that there are not women leaders coming through who our male colleagues can bring into leadership (although that statement in itself is problematic, because women should not be dependent on men bringing them into leadership). At the same time I hear gifted women struggling with the barriers to their appointment into leadership roles.

To be fair, there have been some changes. We can find, in a range of different places, women leading in creative and innovative ways. Here’s one of the questions I have: do we still too often ‘think leadership and think male’? The attributes associated with leadership, our vision of what leadership looks like and what is needed to do it well has an (often profound) androcentric bias. This bias makes it difficult to imagine female colleagues in leadership. 

This runs with the assumption that men are the standard in leadership, creating invisible biases in organisations as they look at developing leaders. One of the barriers that women confront when they seek to take on leadership roles is that they must behave like a man in order to be heard or accepted. The double bind is that when they do they are too often judged negatively for this behaviour: bossy rather than assertive; strident rather than commanding; meddling rather than managing; stubborn rather than sure; weak rather than caring.

Cultural and religious beliefs about gender inform workplace attitudes. These become embedded in workplace structures, practices and patterns of interaction. Gendered cultural assumptions have created workplaces that too often deny women’s abilities and the space for them to lead as who they are.

Women have lacked mentors and models in leadership. While today there are women leading in a range of sectors, and so providing models, too often they are considered the exception rather than the rule. This means other women, too often, don’t see them as models. Despite our own battles when we are in leadership, we need to take on mentorship for at least 2 other women so that we multiply the pool of women leaders.

Another issue, identified regularly in the research on women in leadership, is the lack of people who will promote women, advocate for them and put their names forward for leadership. Male managers promote male colleagues first. Women need those who will advocate for them, who will put their name forward for leadership.

There are good women who are ready and skilled to take on leadership. Recognising the biases, often hidden, is one step toward understanding these contradictory statements from men and women.