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Female leaders: Are we more critical of senior figures when they're female?

We are hearing much more these days about the importance of having female leaders and getting women into positions of leadership or influence. This includes business, in certain fields such as STEM-based industries, politics or the military. The Hampton-Alexander Review (2016) set targets in the UK to improve board representation to 33% by 2021. While improvements have been achieved with 38% of FTSE100 and 35% of FTSE250 UK boards now including female leaders, there are still only 8 FTSE100 female CEOs (, 2022). Along with this slow change we still hear of women’s credibility or authority being questioned. Why is it that when female leaders rise to senior positions their behaviour comes under greater scrutiny and their status and authority are not always recognised?

The Authority Gap

I recently had the opportunity to hear Mary Ann Sieghart speaking about her book The Authority Gap. She provides many examples of female leaders who have reached positions of power, leadership or status yet still not being listened to, being patronised, talked over, being dismissed despite their status and position, or just ignored.

The female leaders identified include those in politics such as Mary McAleese when President of Ireland, and Julia Gillard when Prime Minister of Australia; in business such as Shubhi Rao when Treasurer of Alphabet, parent company of Google; and in the military such as Major General Sharon Nesmith; as well as Mary Ann herself, an experienced political commentator and journalist. All (and many more) are vivid examples of women being ignored or having their position and authority overlooked or disrespected.

Why are female leaders judged more harshly?

What might be some of the explanations for this type of behaviour towards female leaders?

Cultural expectations of female leaders

Studies have shown that in conferences or meetings, involving both men and women, that men typically dominate in terms of word count. Culturally in many societies women are expected to be respectful and listen to men and so men are used to taking the lead, particularly around important topics and decisions. Women may hold back, and in many cultures have learnt that men speak first and have the last word. As women rise to positions of power as female leaders this causes a cultural clash for some men.

Lack of balance between male and female leaders

There is still a lack of balance between male and female leaders so fewer female leader role models exist which makes breaking this behaviour difficult. As we increasingly see female leaders in positions of power, women can find their voice and gain ground in terms of being listened to.

Men's voices are given more value

Finally, the traditional patriarchy that has existed for so long has meant that men’s voices still carry more weight in our society. Yielding power and authority to women remains difficult for men until a shift to a more egalitarian society emerges.

What can be done to empower female leaders?

Recognising the fact that a woman’s authority is challenged more than a man’s is important not just because it is frustrating and hurtful to women when it happens, but because it creates a continuation of the bias women receive which impacts opportunities for achievement.

In the words of Mary Ann Sieghart:

“ like compound interest, the cumulative effect of the authority gap rolls up over a woman’s life to produce, by the end, a gaping difference in opportunity and achievements compared with her male contemporaries.”

I'd love to hear from female leaders though on your experiences around this issue! Please do get in touch...


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