Increasing the impact of unconscious bias due to gendered expectations is the fact that when we do recognise leadership skills in women, we cringe. In a world where history has taught us that a woman should be domestic, nurturing and generally pretty quiet, we are uneasy when confronted by the opposite. Take our former Prime Minister as an example. Julia Gillard faced constant criticism often directly targeting her appearance and her personal life rather than her policies. Being compared to animals and referred to as a witch were fairly common occurrences. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has faced similar issues with critics commenting on her “plain style”, “boxy suits” and “frumpy” appearance. Even when she shows a bit of stylish flair, she cannot win. One headline read: “Merkel’s Weapons of Mass Destruction” following this outfit choice.
The commonality between these situations is the targeting of Gillard and Merkel’s apparent lack of femininity, via their appearance. The styles of speech, dress and leadership practiced by both women are typically identified as masculine; political leadership demands the kind of strength and power we only associate with men. Thus, we mock these Iron Women and their masculine leadership qualities by denying them typically feminine traits such as beauty and poise.
Psychologist Virginia Valian’s research on gender issues in the workplace reveal that such attitudes occur not just in politics but also in the average workplace. When Valian asked over 250 managers to assess the work and attitudes of staff and colleagues, she found that female managers were more likely to be associated with the phrases like “bitter”, “quarrelsome” and “selfish”.
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When we are surrounded by so many negative images of female leaders and we are taught to guard and value our feminine traits, is it really a surprise that women are less likely to seek promotions? As Natasha Walter clarifies in her book Living Dolls, “the operation of traditional stereotypes in public and private life discourages women from taking on certain roles.”
So how do we turn the tides? What must we do to eliminate the stereotypes and allow women to consider positions of power without fearing criticism, a loss of femininity and generally negative attitudes from colleagues?
Norway introduced a gender quota system which resulted in a rise in women in senior leadership positions from 7% in 2003 to 40.3% in 2010. Despite critics claiming that the system would be anti-meritocratic, no evidence has been found to suggest that the women in these roles are less effective, or less qualified than the male competition. With a larger number of women in power, all of whom deserve to be there, surely Norway’s social experiment should allow us to reconsider quotas?
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Bringing more women into powerful positions in the workplace will bring with it new ideas, decision-making styles and an insight into female consumer and employee behaviour. As women make up half the nation’s talent pool, it is in our interest to utilize their skills and knowledge. In fact, such a change would result in an estimated 20% increase in nation wide productivity! As the Gender Equality Project emphasises: “no country can realise its potential if half its population cannot reach theirs.”
As such, it is about time we, like Germany, began seriously thinking about gender quotas, and how their ability to reverse unconscious gendered hiring practices can benefit everyone.