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Overcoming Unconscious Biases Against Female Bosses

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"I went on Yahoo and asked, 'What's the poorest country in Asia?'...I saw the photos of Bangladesh and thought, 'Oh my God.' The next thing I thought was, 'I should go there.'" - Eriko Yamaguchi, Founder, Motherhouse

As I was speaking on a panel last week at The United Nations on 'Women and The Future of Global Leadership', one of my fellow panelists, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, Former UN Under- Secretary-General and a Bangladeshi diplomat -- began passionately describing his advocacy work for women and children in the poorest nations. As he spoke, I began thinking about Eriko Yamaguchi, a young Japanese entrepreneur I interviewed who was building a thriving business in Chowdhury's country.

Most entrepreneurs try to seize upon a favorable economic landscape to grow their businesses. Instead, Eriko, now a burgeoning power playing in Asia's fashion business and one of the 125 entrepreneurs we interviewed when writing The Athena Doctrine, combines the attitude of a true innovator with the steadfast resolve of a philanthropist.

Upon arriving in Bangladesh, Eriko set out to build a successful business while simultaneously providing well-paying jobs for people in Dahka. Overtime, she cultivated the skills of her workers, transitioning them from making $1 jute fabric sacks for grain and potatoes to stitching luxury leather handbags and eventually opening eight retail shops in Japan and four in Taiwan.

Eriko named her enterprise Motherhouse as a tribute to Mother Teresa and she has strove to embody the skills this leader was famous for -- compassion, selflessness and patience. While these skills are not stereotypically associated with bold leadership, research from The Athena Doctrine shows that they are actually the ones most highly associated with positive tangible business outcomes and with the public perception of "ideal modern leadership." Forced to overcome a myriad of practical and cultural obstacles of being a successful female boss figure in an Islamic country, Eriko worked alongside her employees and promoted many to valued partners. She empowered them with esteem-building rewards like profit sharing and gave them ID badges (many had never had a picture of themselves before). In time, she built an effective new business ecosystem in the Bangladeshi factories.

Eriko's success story is applicable to the discussion of female bosses here in the U.S. who, while markedly effective and successful are not always portrayed as such in the media. A recent New York Times article, "Women as Bosses Still Face Bias," revealed that female leaders are held to different standards than their male counterparts -- they are harshly censured for using profanity, criticized for posing a certain way for a magazine, and even denounced for not being self aggrandizing enough about their success (even though research shows that self-promotion can backfire for women).

These counterproductive gender biases keep gender equality stagnating: women lead only 4.2 percent of our largest pubic corporations, make up only 14 percent of top officers in corporate America and fill a measly 18 percent of board seats. In other words, the archetype of the masculine command-and-control leader still persists and it's troubling for gender parity. Even more troubling is that these gender stereotypes are being espoused by men and women alike, and perpetuated by the mass media.

Our research for The Athena Doctrine elucidates some disconcerting evidence about how female bosses are viewed. We fielded a study of 64,000 people in 13 countries and found that both American men and women are more than twice as likely to prefer a male boss to a female boss, with a paltry 7 percent of U.S. men, 12 percent of U.S. women and 9 percent of all adults claiming to prefer a female boss.

Meanwhile, countries that have had female leaders, namely Chile, which had its first female president from 2006-2010, and Germany, which currently has a female chancellor, displayed more progressive attitudes toward female bosses across all demographics. Fifteen percent of Germans revealed they preferred female bosses (more than twice the American average), while 70 percent of Chileans claimed they had no gender preference.

These statistics are by no means a tipping point, but things do appear to be changing as our society ages. According to our research, Millennials in the U.S. actually equally prefer a male to a female boss and a vast majority say they don't care whether their boss is a man or a women. This is good news. However, stating a preference is one thing. Unconsciously perpetuating a stagnant stereotype of leadership is another.

So what can we learn from Eriko and what do these lackluster response rates toward female bosses reveal? Are we not ultimately as receptive to female leadership as the cultural conversation would lead us to believe? Are unconscious biases and unfair media coverage perpetuating gender inequality and making it impossible for even those women at the very top to be perceived positively and by the same standards as their male counterparts?

One thing is clear: in an evolving global landscape in which we are becoming more interconnected, technologically advanced and transparent, the requirements for effective leadership are changing. Skills that people said in our research are often perceived as more feminine -- like openness, collaboration and empathy are proving extremely valuable in driving innovation. Parlaying this modern leadership paradigm like Eriko did makes for better business, regardless of one's gender. Flexibility, diversity of thought and compassion are no longer a nice-to-have. It is an imperative for both men and women alike to embody the ideal modern leader in order to not fall behind.

However, until we all become aware of our unconscious biases about gender and work, female leaders -- and the much-needed skills that many of them embody -- will continue to be under-represented or held to a vicious double standard. When this happens, we do ourselves a disservice. We teach our daughters that their work is valued less. We deprive our economy of the leadership skills it needs so desperately. We reward leadership that is outmoded and unoriginal (and -- even worse -- only weakly associated with growth and innovation). We discourage both men and women from bringing their whole selves to work and we require many women to change when they walk into the boardroom instead of advocating for important change inside the boardroom for everyone.