The way to get more women in power is to recode our brains

Duck duck goose.
Duck duck goose.
Image: Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool Photo via AP
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Have you ever wondered if your gender impacts your ability to progress professionally? I have. From a main-stage TED talk to corporate contracts, my gender had become a problem—for others.

As I became more successful within the sustainable design world, I kept discovering moments where my femaleness was restricting perceptions of my ability to perform the more empowered roles allocated to me. Evidence has shown that men and women lead in similar ways, but the public’s perception seems to think otherwise. So I decided to take a deep dive into a year-long research project to uncover why so few women are assigned leadership roles, especially in progressive design and technology sectors.

Throughout my research, I found that an invisible chalk outline (think nineties crime show, post-homicide) is etched into our minds of what a leader “should” be like. And, for most of us, it looks like a man, filled with traditionally ‘male’ traits of assertiveness, aggression, and authority. Once, an older business executive told me that my onstage tone was patronizing. When I asked if he would feel the same way about the tone if it were coming from a man, he stopped, thought about it, and replied, “ Honestly, no.” He simply wanted me to fit his expectations of how a young woman “should be.”

We impose expectations on people based on what sex we assume they are, automatically restricting their potential based on pre-structured gender stereotypes. Systems reinforce themselves, and they sometimes grow like viruses at exponential rates until they dominate an ecosystem. We see this in systems occurring in nature all the way through to systems created by technology—the dominance of one element within a system breeds more of the same.

So with regard to leadership, a lack of diversity feeds the perpetuation of a lack of diversity. This is especially true for women. The system’s refusal to allow for interventions is due to the biases created from centuries of one element dominating the system. “We’ve always done it this way” can be translated to what systems scientists define as a reinforcing feedback loop. Why? Because humans like and reward what they already know, and thus, the system perpetuates itself through the reinforcing of the main element. Simply put, male dominance in leadership is fueling more male leadership.

You can’t really blame us humans; familiarity is comforting and reduces the ancient human dislike for discomfort and an anxiety of the unknown. Female leaders represent an unknown entity, because for the majority of Western history they’ve been untried in top jobs across all industries. Researcher Virginia Schein coined the term “Think Leader, Think Male” to describe this phenomenon. And although the culture may be shifting slightly, it’s still reinforced by many social norms.

There is mounting evidence that putting more women in power results in more economic gains: This includes studies that show corporations with top-quartile representation of women outperform ones without and last year’s annual report by the World Economic Forum that drew a clear correlation between gender equality and growth in GDP. More and more evidence shows the collective benefit in rewriting the social codes that bind people to restrictive gender norms and how we should empower more equitable access to leadership roles.

In light of this research, why does the “white males are leaders” feedback loop continue? From a cognitive-science perspective, it unfortunately makes sense: We all hold implicit biases, which are expectations of people that form after years of exposure to a particular type of behavior or norm. Biases live deep within our subconscious, and we all have them.

After I started this research, I noticed that I was also quietly pre-judging men and women based on a weird set of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” These were often related to odd factors like their age, whether they were married, or if they had kids. It was incredibly weird to suddenly start noticing these silent frames that I was imposing on others; they would subtly creep into my thinking processes. A frame would suddenly appear around someone, and unless I noticed it and questioned whether it was the right fit, it stayed there—and influenced my opinions of that person. As I started to see the frame and take them down, it was obvious to me that many stereotypes I held just don’t fit.

Scientists have found the human brain is riddled with a complex array of biases that influence pretty much everything we do, from choice paralysis (when too many options keep us from making a decision) to confirmation bias (when your brain filters information so you only see what you already know). No one is immune to the brain’s shortcuts that make being a human easier. But here’s the thing: Studies have shown that learning about biases isn’t enough to recode them—you need to develop bias-busting techniques yourself.

When it comes to choosing between people to elevate to a more senior role, such as a CEO or a political leader. the subconscious biases activate, and we can’t help but rely on a predetermined decision matrix of “same equals better, because new equals unknown.” Relying on biases builds a collective ignorance to the need for diversity to help our economic and cultural systems flourish.

Intervening in your consciousness of your complex social and neurological wiring is difficult. Many corporations have now started to offer implicit bias training, but to override lifelong gender biases, we need more than a video explaining the facts. I’m interested in the many opportunities we have to shift the status quo developed tools to help build empathy and equity. By challenging our own biases, learning to understand and appreciate the diversity of others, and thinking beyond quick, simplistic judgments, we can rewrite the codes that feed the gender paradox.