From the Golden Globes to this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the topic on every group of leaders’ agenda is “women.” Thanks to movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, and given the prospect of a record number of women running for office, women’s voices are being heard like never before.
But if we want what’s been dubbed “The Year of the Woman” to be more than a slogan, we also need significant numbers of women heading our biggest companies and institutions, the organizations that can drive real change. And that won’t happen unless we recognize that the world still operates under a set of assumptions—we prefer to call them myths—that hold women back from reaching anything near parity in the upper ranks.
These myths go something like this: If only women would be more assertive. If only they would raise their hands and take more risks. If we could just fix the women, then the leadership roles that have so long eluded women would be theirs.
Do more. Be more. Change. While throughout history women were constrained by stereotypes that portrayed them as physically and emotionally frail, today’s women bump up against the assumption that women’s behavior is the reason they’re stuck at about 17% to 20% of leadership positions worldwide.
This “fix-the-women” mentality places the onus for change on women, rather than on the real culprit: systemic flaws inherited from a time when the workplace was designed from a single perspective (male). As the latest sex-harassment scandals remind us, in the past, when women obeyed the norms of this workplace, they got nowhere. If they were “good sports” and brushed off misconduct as “boys will be boys,” they were harassed all the more. And if they spoke up—well, no one listened. Or worse, they were fired.
Creating a workplace where women can lead requires that we stop trying to fix women, and debunk all the myths that feed into this mentality:
#1: The Women-Lack-Ambition Myth
To start, companies need to re-think their traditional notions of “leadership” and “ambition.” Male behavior is not the be-all standard. Delivering on goals is.
From what we’ve seen, there is no female “confidence gap” or “ambition gap” among professional women. What we do know is that in women, confidence and ambition show up differently than they do in men.
For instance, studies show that men tend to overestimate their abilities in everything from math to entrepreneurship, while women underestimate theirs. Unfortunately, when a woman says she isn’t qualified for a role, or a man says he is, we believe both—and use this as proof that women have a “confidence gap.”
No negative label is put on men’s behavior. Yet, what some call male confidence can also be seen as recklessness, that a potentially unprepared person is applying for an important job or running a business.
Misperceptions about women’s behavior may account for their more difficult path up the corporate ladder. One report shows that women lobby for promotions at comparable rates to men, but are less likely to be promoted. Another study revealed that women ask for raises as often as men do, but get them less often.
#2: The Pipeline Myth: There aren’t enough qualified women
In addition to rethinking “leadership,” companies need to be intentional and creative in their hiring, both by promoting from within and recruiting outside the box.
As of mid-2017, 6% of companies in the Fortune 500, or 32 of them, had women CEOs. If we want to reach gender equality, we’d have to go from 6% to 50%.
We hear it frequently: There aren’t enough women prepared to hold the biggest jobs—or who even want them.
But look again. To attain equality among Fortune 500 CEOs, companies would need to recruit just 218 women—and they’re out there. The same thing goes for boards of directors. A board is usually 12 or 14 people. If your board is already 25% female, you need to add just three more women. Any company can find that.
The pipeline, in fact, is full of qualified women. Women hold almost 52% of all professional-level jobs in the U.S. They constitute 40% of MBAs from top schools and 47% of all law degrees. And yes, they want the big jobs. A Bain study showed that nearly half of new women employees aspired to the C-suite.
#3: The Man Myth: Advancing women hurts men
When the new myths about women get busted, both women and men—and the companies they work for—benefit. One study shows that women-led startups may have a higher rate of return than the average male-run company. Another report says that companies with female CEOs perform three times better than S&P 500 companies headed predominantly by men.
It’s also important to recognize, in this post-Harvey era, that men are the greatest allies women can have. Time and again we’ve seen men do the right thing: Stand up for women, fire miscreants—and in some instances put women into the leadership roles vacated by men. Most men want women to succeed.
Men can help by amplifying the voices of women in their companies—recognizing women’s contributions and making sure they get credit. They can also make a difference by seeing gender stereotypes for what they are and alerting others to them, too.
A workplace where women are fully represented at every rung will be better for all. And that’s no myth.
Kim Azzarelli is a founder of Seneca Women, and Deanna Bass is the Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Procter & Gamble.