Why Women Don't Lead

Female talents are being significantly underutilized to the detriment of firms, governments and society. Consistent with essential tenets of grand strategy and statecraft, we cannot change the statistics unless we address the ecology that produces them.
05/04/2016 12:18 pm ET Updated May 03, 2017

Co-authored with Sofia Lapides-Wilson and Lauren Taylor

Last week, a high-ranking official from the U.S. Government spoke on Yale's campus. While he exuded power, the room hardly noticed his administrative assistant next to him. As he talked, she adeptly passed him speaking points, corrected his mistakes, and monitored his partiality - all without saying a word to the audience.

Of course, this type of gender dynamic is not unique. Early feminists' coined the phrase "Behind every great man is a great woman" to give credit where they believed it was overdue. Unfortunately, acknowledging the roles of women in support of men has led many to assume that women are ill-suited to or not interested in positions of formal power.

Both implicitly and explicitly, women in 2016 continue to hear: 'Women lack confidence.' 'Women are less voluble than men.' 'Women don't really want leadership positions.' These platitudes dangerously portray adaptive solutions as natural facts. They double as unfounded excuses for why women continue to be underrepresented and underpaid, while setting the stage for individual superwomen to "lean in."

Both of these reactions fail to appreciate the larger systemic forces in which women are operating. Brescoll and colleagues from the Yale School of Management recently captured the impact of one such force, demonstrating that women anticipate and fear backlash from others for speaking up. A follow-up study further demonstrates that this fear of backlash is not just perceived, but well-founded. In experimental data, assertive, loud women who act as CEOs are rated more poorly than equally assertive, loud men.

This finding aligns with the intuitions and lived experiences with women worldwide. Last week Yale hosted the Women in Africa Leadership for Strategic Impact Forum. Twelve delegates from six countries gathered at Yale to discuss strategies to promote women's leadership in Africa. The women did not need empirical proof that they faced backlash; when the statistics went up on the PowerPoint, the room filled with groans of recognition.

Looking to the future, Brescoll's study also calls for a reconsideration of the assumptions often heaped upon women who take on roles supporting men. Maybe women - desiring to have impact but anticipating backlash - have found ways to adapt to existing power structures and express leadership indirectly. So while women are often underrepresented in the top positions, they are strategically stationed around the top positions, advising and directing from behind.

Recognizing the power that women already possess is an important but insufficient step forward. Firms with females in formal leadership roles enjoy a range of benefits, according to a slew of recent management research. Corporations with more women on boards have larger profit margins, and communities with women in political leadership positions across the globe have invested more in water, road, sanitation, education, and health care. Additionally, it was 5 female US senators who cooperated across party lines to end the October 2013 government shutdown.

In short, female talents are being significantly underutilized to the detriment of firms, governments and society. Consistent with essential tenets of grand strategy and statecraft, we cannot change the statistics unless we address the ecology that produces them. Urging individual women to lean in will not be sufficient. Nor will providing leadership training for women alone do the job. A successful strategy must recognize the root causes of the current state, including the relationship between men and women. People of all genders must therefore collaborate to change the environment that has so consistently overlooked women's contributions and interrupts their ascension from administrative assistant to manager, from COO to CEO, from Vice President to President. Without a collective effort, we cannot excel as a society when key voices are left unheard.