Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, graduated university in a pool of graduates with a roughly equal male-female ratio. Above her was a male-dominated hierarchy that she imagined would decline as she progressed up the career ladder thanks to the efforts against gender discrimination in the workplace made by the generation before her. That was over 20 years ago. Today Sheryl Sandberg represents one of two women on Facebook’s board of directors in an industry where not even 5% of CEOs are women. It is now clear that the situation remains unchanged from where it stood 20 years ago and it will most likely remain unchanged 20 years from now. In fact, the number this year decreased as the 32 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 in 2017 is now a mere 24.
We constantly hear about the rise of women in the workplace, so why is it that we still struggle to see the results in leadership positions? Companies are becoming more transparent about the gender pay gap and realizing the need for a more diverse workforce to boost innovation. Do women receive the same opportunities as men? At a university level, yes. Currently, in UK universities, women are actually the majority. If we all start out equal, why does the number of women fall at each level then until there are just one or two left at the table?
There are countless studies that demonstrate the different perspectives of gender in the workplace. Research shows that for a leadership position with two completely identical candidates, participants will favour the male applicant. Traits that come across as likable, assertive and successful in a man are perceived as bossy, aggressive and demanding in a woman. Could it be that many women so nearly make it to the top because they lack some ill-defined, ambiguous quality of leadership, which is usually a question of gender rather than ability?
More often than not, a man will attribute his success to himself, whereas a woman will mostly attribute her success to others. There is undeniably a positive correlation between likeability and success for men that does not appear to exist for women. Clearly, there is a significant bias in the professional world that causes women to systematically underestimate themselves, and less frequently negotiate pay rises and fight for the promotions that they deserve.
The sluggish progression of women in leadership positions cannot be solely attributed to the internal psychological barriers that teach women to be more reserved when striving to achieve their goals. Women face external barriers enforced by predominantly white male bosses who look for a reflection of themselves in future board members to fit the mold they have created. Clearly, we need female board members to be able to encourage and promote more in the future.
Sheryl Sandberg justifiably does not believe that she will see 50% of senior positions filled by women within her lifetime and it is probable that neither will we. The harsh reality is that women are not making it to the top of their professions anywhere in the world. Whilst culture varies from country to country, one thing remains the same; men are taught to be assertive whereas women are not. It is clear that women need to be more self-confident because worldwide they are led to believe that they are not equal to men. The numbers at the top are not moving therefore the barriers to female success are clearly much more deeply rooted than we choose to believe.