What Bias? Against Women or “Feminine” Leadership Styles?

Who is the object of “gender” bias? Is it women? Is it sometimes men? Is it “feminine” vs. “masculine” styles and approaches?

I have been careful to focus on differences between “masculine” and “feminine” perspectives, styles and strengths and not on differences between men and women. I find statements about what women (or men) do like fingernails on a chalkboard. The only way to describe how women think and behave, and how men do, is to use stereotypes. Stereotypes are at the root of many forms of bias, including gender bias. Harmful stereotypes that keep women back, for example, are:

· Women will leave to have or care for babies.

· Women are unlikely to want a job that requires travel or a move.

· Women aren’t as able as men to work in technical fields.

· Women don’t want the top jobs.

Women experience the greatest impact from “gender” bias. Women are over half the population, earn more degrees (undergraduate and graduate) than men, and are 47% of the workforce. Yet white men still dominate at the top of business, law, higher education, and government. Women are just over 5% of CEO’s in the S&P 500, 19% of equity partners in law firms, less than a third of college presidents (though the majority of college graduates are women), and 21% of U.S. Senators. There are lots of reasons for this, including the choice of many women not to pursue the top jobs. But many women make that choice because of unwelcoming organizational cultures -- which are affected by unconscious gender bias.

Apart from bias against women, is there a separate, sometimes overlapping, bias against “feminine” styles of working and leading? I think there is. See if you agree.

Research from a few years ago showed that women who can operate in both masculine and feminine ways do well in business. Women who are either consistently “feminine” or overly “masculine” do less well. Other research shows that “feminine” styles are not associated with leadership. And women face an obstacle if they operate in a masculine style. The “double bind” for women is that they are not seen as leaders if they have a feminine style but are disliked if they operate in a masculine way (too often or too much). So there seems to be a preference for the masculine – and a bias against the feminine – at least in the area of women’s leadership style.

Is there bias against men who operate in the workplace in “feminine” ways (whether they are heterosexual, gay or trans-sexual). I have anecdotal evidence (from asking in my workshops) that men sometimes feel they must operate in masculine ways to be accepted (and promoted). Men fear being called a “sissy” perhaps as much as women want to avoid being called that “B” word when they are assertive, directive or strong.

Which is the stronger of these two forms of bias (against women and against the “feminine”)? A body of research on transgendered men seems to indicate that the bias against women trumps the other bias. Although the sample size was not huge, there are consistently troubling differences in the workplace experiences of men who had formerly been women. Many reported “new found authority and competence.” Some received higher performance rating and more positive reviews from clients than when they were female.

Both of these biases (against women and against the feminine leadership style) are costing business. We know that organizations with gender diversity in leadership perform better. Leadership experts, including John Gerzema, say that today’s workforce requires a form of leadership that includes feminine as well as masculine strengths.

In my workshops, I focus on the strengths of feminine as well as masculine styles of working and leading. I do this for practical reasons; there seems to be less resistance than when men are asked to attend a session on bias against women. More important, I do it because leaders who employ both masculine and feminine strengths are better leaders. And because workplaces that value feminine styles of working will attract, engage and retain women as well as men. They will enable both men and women to use strengths all along the masculine-feminine continuum. They will achieve gender diversity at the top and gain the established benefits of gender diversity.

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