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Why there aren’t more female CEOs

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It has been described that women have difficulty reaching influential leadership roles as a result of their lack of confidence, but structural barriers can also contribute to this problem.

In the corporate world - or the world, for that matter - we see men thriving in leadership roles and taking the big decisions. But why aren’t there more women in the picture? 

It’s hinted that it has to do with confidence. According to a Hewlett Packard internal report, men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. As one Forbes article puts it, “women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off each item on the list.”

Furthermore, Sheryl Sandberg points out in her best-selling book and website Lean-in that women must "think less, act more," and not aim for approval but for respect. The advice motivates women to dare to jump into the water, share their new ideas, speak up, and have more of a can-do attitude.

Apparently, this is a challenge that feminist authors Pauline Claunce and Suzanne Imes described in 1978 as “The Impostor Syndrome”, a feeling that many professional women have in the workplace. The fear of being “found out” at any moment or that they don’t deserve the position despite possessing noteworthy capabilities is one of the reasons that women don’t apply to higher-ranking roles. 

Or is it? 

In retrospect, blaming it all on a lack of confidence does lay a guilt trip on women instead of pointing a finger at the real culprit; the system. It sounds too much like telling a blind man “you’re just not trying hard enough” when faced with an obstacle course. I mean, sure, he might complete it eventually, but not at the same pace or with the same ease as an opponent with sight.

Or, as a McKinsey & Company report puts it, it's more due to “the broken rung” remaining unfixed. As the report illustrates, this first step up to being a manager is broken, and it is holding women back, “for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are promoted.” This means that women start the race late, and then it’s almost impossible to catch up.

Simply put, this has to do with gender bias. Women are more likely to experience microaggressions such as being passed over or denied a raise, promotion, or opportunity to stand out in relation to their personal lives, such as having children or even being married. Also, for these very reasons, their authority isn’t always taken seriously, or it’s used as a weapon against them in times of hardship. 

As a study by Science Daily shows, people are less likely to support women-led businesses after an ethical failure, as well as condemning them further if these women were described with stereotypically feminine traits ("helpful, sensitive”) on the company website, in contrast to presenting them in a conventionally masculine manner ("skilled, strongly independent”).

Certainly, a lack of confidence isn’t the problem. Accordingly, as Tara Mohr illustrates in her own survey for the Harvard Business Review, the main reason women don’t apply to jobs they aren’t 100% qualified for is because they are following the guidelines stated on the offer, where they assess their expertise and decide it doesn't match the role. So, is it women’s fault that they view the specified skills as prerequisites for the job?

Granted that, this has much do to with what Mohr rightly points out, girls have always been taught to strictly “follow the rules”, and if they didn’t, they were punished and cast out. How are women supposed to know that it works the other way around in the professional world?

The survey also found that 22% of women did not want to apply and put themselves out there if they were likely to fail. Because not only were they cautious of being chastised for not following the rules, but they were also afraid of the emotional cost that failure would bring. This closely relates to how they were reprimanded in their younger years; girls are usually corrected on mistakes related to their ability, while boys were more prone to behavioral interventions.

It seems that in a world created for men, women have a harder time getting by. Shocker, isn’t it? This is without mentioning further determining factors such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, or rather, the unlikely chance of generational wealth. 

So maybe placing the blame on women and telling them to "try harder" isn't the only solution to this issue, perhaps what is needed is for women’s rights movements to be supported to a greater extent, in such a way that society feels pressured to change and create better opportunities to boost women. It is the system, with its misleading rules, that is responsible for the lack of female CEOs, not women's lack of confidence.

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