Are female leaders judged too harshly?

The road to the top isn’t easy for anyone, especially women – and the challenges don’t stop there. Are female leaders treated unfairly and their successes limited?

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management today.

Studies have shown that men – and women – think women have dominated conversations when they have spoken for no more than half of the time (in one study by Dr Dale Spencer, this figure was just 30% of the time). Another found that female CEOs perceived as ‘talkative’ are also seen to be less competent – it’s the opposite for men (Yale School of Management). Such seemingly small things lead many people to see women as being prevented from reaching their full potential.

Are female leaders judged more harshly than their male counterparts? Management Today spoke to several high-profile female CEOs to find out. The short answer? Unsurprisingly, the same systemic inequalities and biases that face women on the way up, remain when they have made it as a leader – though it seems there may be a glimmer of hope…

Under more pressure

Firstly, it’s difficult to make great assessments of female leadership as there are not that many women in the upper echelons of British business. There are, for example, only 17 female CEOs in the FTSE 350.

Many female leaders argue that they have been percieved differently from their male counterparts, and work constantly under a more glaring spotlight. “I was being watched to see when I was going to drop a ball” one senior woman said.

However, some women believe this increased visibility to be beneficial. “For the 25 years I was an analyst – a world where people are trying to differentiate themselves – I found being a woman an advantage, because I would stand out from the other grey suits,” says Lorna Tilbian, chairman of Dowgate Capital. “If you raised your hand in a meeting, it would be ‘ladies first’, so you’d get the first question. That was handy. Or if there was a formal lunch as part of a capital markets day, or an offsite, then they’d sit ‘the lady’ to the right of the CEO, so you had an opportunity to quiz them individually.”


This does still show women to be treated differently; the extra attention can be suffocating and detrimental for female leaders. “People sometimes expect you to be this Wonder Woman. You’re hailed as the first woman to do something, but it just builds unrealistic expectations because you are fallible and you will make mistakes,” says Fiona Dawson  who just stepped down from her role as global president of Mars Food and is the current chair of the Women’s Business Council in the UK.

Former city editor of The Sunday Times, and executive editor of the Evening Standard, James Ashton agrees that the spotlight can be a double-edged sword. “The ongoing scarcity of female business leaders cuts both ways; their achievements are magnified by the media and analysts, but so are their failings.”

Perfectionism is a resulting issue, with many women fearing making mistakes. Such concerns seem to be justified as research shows they are punished more for making a questionable call than men. For example, in a Yale School of Management study, participants were given details of a mistake made by a fictional leader. When they were told it was a male leader, his rating dropped by 10%, but when it was a female leader, they docked her 30%, and wanted her demoted! They did not try to demote the male leader.

A study by academics at the Kellogg School of Management found that, when the media reported a woman’s appointment to the top job, the company’s share price fell, on average, by 2.5%; in contrast, male CEO appointments saw no impact on the share price. Interestingly, the share price fall was not because the investors thought women were incompetent, but because of their anticipated reaction – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Silent sexism

While we have grown a lot in recent years, there still remains some more subtle biases and the business world is no different. “It was a lot easier for me in one way,” recalls Fiona Dawson after stepping down from her big corporate leadership role, “because I joined a working world of conscious bias, not unconscious bias. It was in your face – you knew it, you saw it, you were very aware of it. You could easily spot the abhorrent people.”

Women also have to contend with the question of likeability; they are often criticised for being too eager to please or caring too much – if that’s possible. For female leaders, showing passion or assertiveness can risk their dismissal for being ‘overemotional’.

Of course, there also remain the usual biases, the judgment over a woman’s maternal status and assumptions that caring duties are her responsibility, for example. Sharon Mavin, professor of leadership and organisation studies at Newcastle University Business School says, “It can be difficult, managing the delicate balance of being smart and attractive without being portrayed as too slutty or feminine. One elite woman told me that if she was perceived to be ‘too fat’, it would pose a risk to her professionalism.”

What to do?

Firstly, businesses need to stop undervaluing women’s experiences and to hire more women into executive positions with real power. As Ann Sieghart, renowned journalist and former assistant editor of The Times says, “It’s like an elastic band. You stretch it to get gender equality and, as soon as you let go, it snaps back to the default. It won’t really shift unless we can change the sneaky little stereotypes that work on our unconscious brains.”

Are women perceived differently? Yes. Are these perceptions realities? No. So what game is it that women are meant to play? A silent one.

Of course, this is not every environment or person – in fact, most of the women in the study were positive about their experiences. Most importantly, perhaps, it’s vital to not let any of this put you off. “First and foremost you have to say to yourself, ‘I want the leadership role. I don’t want to be a follower forever,’ Dame Moya Greene asserts.

So go for it!

Don’t feel bad, don’t feel as though you have to explain yourself, don’t be a ‘nice girl’. You’ve got this.

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