There’s Something In the Water

25 Nov 2013

by AWS writer, Denise Harrigan

Often-invisible but highly influential, second-generation gender bias often impedes women’s ascent to top levels of leadership. The Harvard Business Review intends to expose it.

Fifty years after women were first admitted into Harvard’s MBA program, the September 2013 issue of The Harvard Business Review (HBR) examines the status of women in the business world. The cover alone – with a silhouetted female profile and the words “Emotional – Bossy – Too Nice ” — reveals that women are floundering, not flourishing.

The bottom line is that only four percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, and 50 of those companies have no female board members. According to Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief of HBR, women remain “distressingly underrepresented at the top levels of institutions.”

The HBR focus is not on the numbers — those numbers, in recent years, have been documented to death. The goal, according to Ignatius, is “finding practical new solutions to a seemingly intractable situation. Closing the leadership gap is a formidable challenge. But there’s no excuse for accepting the status quo.”

The issue, part of the Harvard Business School’s global effort to accelerate the advancement of women leaders, features major articles on persistent gender bias and inclusiveness as a mission and moral imperative.

Unfortunate Legacy

The article “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb, examines undercurrents that impede women’s progress and identifies second-generation gender bias as a major but rarely acknowledged impediment.

Where first-generation gender bias involved the deliberate exclusion of women, the second generation “erects powerful but often subtle and invisible barriers for women that… inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.”


As a result of second-generation gender bias, unspoken cultural perceptions about women often carry more weight than job performance. Perhaps the most insidious belief is that men are natural leaders, and women are followers.

“In most cultures, masculinity and leadership are closely linked,” the authors report. “The ideal leader, like the ideal man, is decisive, assertive and independent. In contrast, women are expected to be nice, caretaking and unselfish.”

Linking leadership with common male behaviors suggests that women are not cut out to be leaders. It can also create a double standard. Assertive men, for example, are admired – and promoted. Assertive women are advised to “soften their sharp elbows.”

As a result, many women waste professional energy trying to project the perfect image — not too pushy, not too nice. According to the authors, some employ voice coaches, image consultants, and branding experts “to manage the competence-likability trade-off— the seeming choice between being respected and being liked.”

“But the time and energy spent on managing these perceptions can ultimately be self-defeating. Overinvestment in one’s image diminishes the emotional and motivational resources available for larger purposes. People who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure, and less capable of self-regulation.”

Leaders Are Made, Not Born

Leadership is not an innate gift – it’s a skill that requires practice. More often than not, men are given opportunities to practice this skill. The workplace, still predominantly led by men, instinctively grooms men for leadership positions, creating stepping stones where men can practice leadership skills.

According to the authors, “Women have fewer opportunities to develop leadership skills and seem less inclined to create these opportunities for themselves.” By nature or nurture, women often gravitate to behind-the-scenes positions, and their efforts fade into the blur of teamwork.

Internalizing Leadership

“People become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose,” the authors observe. “Internalizing a sense of oneself as a leader is an iterative process. A person asserts leadership by taking purposeful action—such as convening a meeting to revive a dormant project. Others affirm or resist the action, thus encouraging or discouraging subsequent assertions. These interactions inform the person’s sense of self as a leader.”

In the wake of positive affirmation, “a person’s leadership capabilities grow. Opportunities to demonstrate them expand. High-profile, challenging assignments …. become more likely. Such affirmation gives the person the fortitude to step out-side a comfort zone and experiment with unfamiliar behaviors and new ways of exercising leadership.”

Well-Meaning but Off Center

The authors of “Women Rising” acknowledge that many companies attempt to level the playing field for women. “Many CEOs make gender diversity a priority, set aspirational goals for the proportion of women in leadership roles”…. and invest in building “a more robust pipeline of upwardly mobile women.

“But then, not much happens,” according to the authors. “The solutions to the pipeline problem are very different from what companies currently employ. Mentoring and leadership education programs are necessary but not sufficient.”

Deeply Conflicted Culture

“These approaches don’t address the often fragile process of coming to see oneself, and to be seen by others, as a leader. Integrating leadership into one’s core identity is particularly challenging for women, who must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority.”

Call It by Name

Since second-generation gender bias “can be subtle, subconscious, assumed but not articulated by both men and women,” the authors recommend that employers begin to address it by simply naming it.

“Second-generation bias does not require an intent to exclude; nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context—akin to ‘something in the water’—in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential.

“Without an understanding of second-generation bias, people are left with stereotypes to explain why women as a group have failed to achieve parity with men: If they can’t reach the top, it’s their own fault for failing to be sufficiently aggressive or committed to the job.”

Alternative Reality

By identifying and addressing second-generation bias, however, companies can finally move toward gender equity – and an executive suite that “doesn’t look or behave like the current generation of senior executives.”

“When women recognize the subtle and pervasive effects of second-generation bias, they feel empowered, not victimized, because they can take action to counter those effects,” the authors promise. “They can put themselves forward for leadership roles when they are qualified but have been overlooked. They can seek out sponsors and others to support and develop them in those roles. They can negotiate for work arrangements that fit both their lives and their organizations’ performance requirements.

“Such understanding,” the authors conclude, “makes it easier for women to ‘lean in.’”

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