Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

This stubborn barrier is widening the gap for women in leadership

If women's potential were viewed the same as men's, would there be more women in leadership?

If women's potential were viewed the same as men's, would there be more women in leadership? Image: Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Angelique Krembs
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Fairer Economies

  • Corporate executives can do more to close the gender gap in the workplace.
  • In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report this year, we see a decline in women hired into leadership, a reversal of what was a slow but steady eight-year trend.
  • In part one of this series from the Band of Sisters, six former executives-turned-authors-and-speakers on women’s leadership, address how “potential” is applied differently across the workplace – and not to women’s favour.

The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap report, published in July 2023, declared that the global gender gap is more than a hundred years from closing. While this fact did not surprise us particularly, one trend did draw our attention: after eight years of slow but steady improvements, the proportion of women hired into leadership has declined.

That trend is a symptom of a larger, more complex problem: how we evaluate the potential of men and women in the workplace. Fixing that will require breaking some long-held cultural and social patterns while finding new ways to highlight talent and capability.

Image: Band of Sisters
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Performance vs potential

When we speak in front of corporate audiences, we often highlight a curious difference in how men and women approach opportunity. Men often see a chance and go for it, while women hang back and consider the skills they’ll need before they are ready to apply. Research shows that women tend to downplay their success and wait to be noticed, limiting their progress up the corporate ladder. Again and again, women screen themselves out.

These women aren’t being paranoid.They feel like they can’t apply for the job or ask for a raise until they meet 100% of the requirements, while men are comfortable applying with maybe just 60%. It's not just a confidence gap. What women don't realize is that their potential is actually not valued as much as for the men.

Research bears this out. This question of “potential” was featured in a study conducted by MIT associate professor Danielle Li, who analyzed 30,000 management-track employees. Li found that, on average, women received higher “performance” ratings than their male counterparts but received 8.3% lower ratings for “potential” than men. Li observed that at the firm, “potential ratings strongly predict promotions,” resulting in female employees being 14% less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues.

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Looking through society’s filter

A study by Christine Exley and Judd Kessler found that women hold back in self-promotion even when they know their performance is equal to that of men. They find that the gender gap in self-promotion mirrors a broader societal gender gap in how men and women evaluate their performance subjectively. Specifically, women evaluate their own performance on "male-typed" tasks (those involving science or maths) less favourably than equally performing men. Researchers note this is consistent with how gender norms and culture may influence behaviour given one’s life experiences.

They even examined high school and middle school children to determine how early this gap emerged. Surprisingly, the gap, as described above, is present as early as the sixth grade – the youngest grade studied. Perhaps the impact of the 1990s Barbie saying, “Math class is tough” is more significant than we realized.

We can think of it as the Moneyball of the C-suite. Yes, that famous disrupter of conventional wisdom in the baseball scouting room.

Angelique Bellmer Krembs, Co-founder, The Band of Sisters

Scaling opportunity

Such gaps might seem inconsequential but imagine the reverse. Imagine the collective impact on a career where people believed in your stretch capabilities at every step. Consider the examples in one recent CEO memoir with a striking number of moments where the author was given a new role with no prior experience. His boss would tell him, “Don’t worry, we believe you can do it.”

That belief had several game-changing effects on his success. Firstly, he was fortunate to be placed in positions where his hard work and leadership skills could be observed and evaluated. Even in situations of failure or close calls, he showcased resilience under pressure, innovative thinking and the ability to rally his team to overcome obstacles.

Secondly, his managers gave him the benefit of the doubt. They could envision him in higher roles and were invested enough to excuse mistakes as part of the natural learning process. All this belief and support allowed him to stretch his potential, take risks and rely on his managers’ self-interest to prove themselves right about their choice.

Now imagine if more women’s potential were seen in the same light as his. We could scale the number of women in top roles.

Let’s play Moneyball in the C-suite

So what can we do to advance more women into leadership? Organizations should rethink the typical practices and assumptions surrounding leadership evaluations to remove bias, and think twice about the factor of “potential.”

  • Take a harder look at the data. If you work in a company that evaluates both performance and potential using data, scrutinize that data. Do you observe the same pattern of discrepancy between performance and potential? Are there any overlooked factors or aspects being downplayed?
  • Question how leadership potential is evaluated. If your company's approach is to evaluate the potential for promotion through conversation, scrutinize the conversations around women. Take a second and third look. Ensure that other women leaders are actively included in the discussion, even if increasing female representation takes more effort and comes from beneath senior leadership. A homogenous group will not be able to see the bias.
  • Review self-evaluations in a different light. Account for biases from both genders. Ask yourself, “What biases can we eliminate from evaluating women’s leadership potential?” Just as blind auditions improved the gender diversity for musicians, what equivalent blind processes can be brought to leadership evaluations? On closer look, you will uncover undervalued talent that can succeed if given the opportunity.

We can think of it as the Moneyball of the C-suite. Yes, that famous disrupter of conventional wisdom in the baseball scouting room. Instead of relying on the same thinking that we’ve always used – “I like the way he walks into a room!” – let’s shift our focus to “Does she get on base?” Then imagine the potential for even greater success if she had the support of this room to step up to the plate and swing for the fences.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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