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October 25, 2013 Practice Points

Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers

By Claudia Hartleben

Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb, authors of the September 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” argue that becoming a leader involves a fundamental identity shift, and that organizations inadvertently undermine this process when they encourage women to seek leadership roles without also addressing policies and practices that communicate a mismatch between how women are seen and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leaders. Specifically, becoming a leader involves shouldering increasingly challenging roles, learning from mentors, and experimenting with new behaviors. If an individual’s performance is affirmed, they repeat the process. Yet, the authors note, 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.”

The authors suggest three actions to support women’s access to leadership positions: (1) educate women and men about second-generation gender bias, (2) create safe “identity workspaces” to support transitions to bigger roles, and (3) anchor women’s development efforts in a sense of leadership purpose rather than in how women are perceived.

Educate Everyone about Second-Generation Gender Bias 
Second-Generation Gender Bias is a concept emerging from the research trend away from deliberate exclusion of women and toward investigating “second-generation” forms of gender bias as the primary cause of women’s underrepresentation in leadership roles. Second-generation bias does not require intent to exclude, nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any one person. For example, when asked what might be holding women back in their organizations, women say: “My firm has the very best intentions when it comes to women. But it seems every time a leadership role opens up, women are not on the slate. The claim is made that they just can’t find women with the right skill set and experience.” That comment illustrates second-generation gender bias: “it creates a context – akin to ‘something in the water’ – in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential.”

The authors argue that without an understanding of second-generation bias, people are left with stereotypes to explain the perceived failure of women to achieve parity with men. They claim that 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.”

Create Safe “Identity Workspaces”
Research demonstrates that accomplished, high-potential women who are evaluated as competent managers often fail the likeability test, whereas competence and likeability tend to go hand in hand for similarly accomplished men. The authors suggest creating a safe setting where women can interpret the messages received during conventional performance reviews. The authors emphasize the importance of creating settings where women are willing to talk openly, take risks, and feel vulnerable without feeling that others will misunderstand or judge them.

The Importance of Leadership Purpose
How women are perceived has been the focus of many efforts to get more of them to the top. The premise, the authors explain, is that “women have not been socialized to compete successfully in the world of men, so they must be taught the skills and styles their male counterparts acquire as a matter of course.” Women should anchor their efforts in their goals and purpose, which enables them to redirect their attention toward shared goals and consider what they need to learn to achieve those goals. The authors propose that instead of defining themselves in relation to gender stereotypes, female leaders can focus on behaving in ways that advance the purposes for which they stand.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, research, bias, leadership

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