The lack of female leaders is one of the most highly discussed challenges in organisations.  A study by McKinsey showed that companies which are more gender diverse are 15% more likely to outperform those with fewer female leaders. A study by Zenger and Folkman found that woman are also consistently rated as more effective leaders than men, so why are there so few female leaders?

While we may not realise it, everyone is subject to unconscious bias. The reason why it’s a taboo topic is because people fear being labeled as sexist, racist or prejudiced for acknowledging it. Studies show that it’s not just male managers who unconsciously stereotype women, female managers are also susceptible to unconscious bias against their female employees. Failing to acknowledge unconscious bias is your company’s number one mistake when it comes to developing female leaders.

Even if your company has a clear policy against inequality in pay and promotion, unconscious bias can still show up in the following ways:

  • Similarity bias – It’s not uncommon for people to “see themselves” in the people they hire. Given that the majority of managers are men, this bias can lead to promoting and hiring fewer women.

  • Feedback – A joint 2016 study by McKinsey and Lean In found that, while both genders ask for feedback equally, women are 20% less likely to receive constructive feedback. The most common answer given is that managers don’t want to seem “mean or hurtful”. If managers hold on to an unconscious fear that women will be more likely to react emotionally to feedback, their female reports will not receive the same feedback and development opportunities as their male peers.

  • Coaching – A study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that 2/3 of men in senior positions pulled back from 1-on-1 contact with junior female employees for fear that they might be suspected of having an affair. Denying female employees the same 1-on-1 mentoring opportunities as their male counterparts.

  • Performance Management – People have a tendency to see certain behaviours as primarily male or female e.g. assertiveness and authority are often stereotyped as “male”, while supportive and collaborative are perceived as “female”. Studies show that when women demonstrate qualities typically associated with men, it is often criticised.

  • Job Descriptions – The problem is not just how men and women are being stereotyped but also how roles are being stereotyped. The qualities most often looked for in a leader, such as assertiveness, authority and taking initiative are also those typically misidentified as “male traits”. Continuing to rely on this outdated view of the typical manager is not only blocking women from being chosen for leadership positions, but also harming many organisations. A study by Gallup found that companies chose the wrong person for management positions 82% of the time.

In today’s global and networked corporate culture, companies are beginning to realise that they need coaches, not managers. Some of the top qualities needed are emotional intelligence, coaching/mentoring, ability to motivate and engage through purpose, empowering through autonomy and ownership.

It’s time to recognise the potential for unconscious bias, and to dump the outdated stereotypes of what makes a great leader.