MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for:What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? is written by Jana Cohen Barbe, global vice chair of Dentons.
Here’s the truth that so many people wish to ignore: women are not progressing into leadership because we are women. Yes, you read that correctly. It is the absence of the Y chromosome. Women have no more shortcomings than the men who lead major companies and institutions. Women are subjected to discrimination simply by virtue of their gender and the only way to successfully address the issue is to shine a spotlight on it and the ensuing discrimination. We need to call it what it is and address it head on.
As indicated in a Pew Research study on “Women and Leadership” women are not afforded the same opportunities for advancement into leadership as men. Often, this is not the result of overt discrimination but instead is due to unspoken bias in its various manifestations, the most insidious of which is the lack of comfort some (not all) men have with women. In other words, some men in high-level positions are simply more comfortable serving with other men in similar positions, and thus the bias becomes self-perpetuating. For instance, when I hear a man say that a particular woman lacks courage or credibility with other senior leaders, I wonder if the real issue is their feelings of discomfort with someone who is fundamentally different.
Let’s look at an example. When a company faces a serious threat, nine times out of 10 is it a man or woman who is chosen to address the challenge? More often than not, it seems men are called upon. Why? Could it be as simple as because “that’s how it’s always been” and that is what we know. Put differently, are various attributes or weaknesses tolerated in men when they are not tolerated in women because the possessor of the attributes is male? Could it be that all of our leaders are imperfect and that we are just more comfortable with male imperfection? It is simply human nature for individuals to gravitate toward what is comfortable and feels natural.
However, this is not to say women bear no responsibility for creating their own path to leadership. Women need to work hard and demonstrate their own effectiveness in various business environments. And, equally important, inspire and motivate others to do the same. But when women do, when women meet and exceed expectations, we should demand a degree of discomfort. Let’s insist not only on equal opportunity, but equal tolerance for flaws or flawed behavior. Let’s examine how our comfort levels and our internal biases impact our choices and commit to be better. Only then will women regularly progress into leadership.