Why is it that we have so few female leaders? What is it that holds us back from reaching the same levels as our male leaders?

We’ve had our first female Prime Minister, for heaven’s sake.  Surely things should have changed by now?  But they have not.

Sheryl Sandberg, in her TEDTalk, quoted some statistics on the topic. “Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly. 190 heads of state — nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats — tops out at 15, 16 percent. The numbers have not moved since 2002 and are going in the wrong direction. And even in the non-profit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women, women at the top: 20 percent.”

Later in her talk she makes some really interesting observations.

  1. Women systematically underestimate their own abilities.
  2. Women do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce.
  3. Men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors.
  4. Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

All of these observations are accurate. Some of our behaviours (or lack of them) are taught to us by the society we live in, and we have accepted them as being the only way to behave.  Others are simply due to the fact that we are wired differently and therefore place value on different areas from men.

It’s a fact that there are basic differences between the male and female brains and that is what triggers our response to the different stimuli. For example, the amygdala is bigger in the male brain.  It’s the region which alerts us to and responds to danger, so it is natural for men to be very competitive.  Women tend to take a more consultative approach to avoid outright confrontation.

Men are confident in their abilities and that’s an attractive thing in a male leader, yet confident women are not regarded as likeable and in many cases, not worthy of respect.

Let’s not even talk about hormones and the impact they have on our thoughts and behaviours!

A different approach to leadership is not a bad thing.  A recent study showed female brains are radically more active in 85% of their brain and it seems that the female brain is actually better wired for the leadership role than the male.

Are we holding ourselves back because we still underestimate our abilities?  Are we holding ourselves back because we are so used to accepting the male model of leadership that we can’t see past it?

What do you think?

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