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Women in Leadership: Do women want women to succeed?

Rhian Morgan

According to a new book, no one wants women to succeed, not even women, writes Rhian Morgan

You don’t want women to succeed – and, even though you’re a manager yourself, you are biased against women as leaders. 

According to a new book, the glass ceiling exists because men – and women – are sexists. And, I must admit, after reading the book, The Invention of Difference: The Story of Gender Bias at Work, top business psychologists Jo and Binna Kandola have made a convincing argument.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. The blurb cites glowing reviews from such illustrious sources as top industrialists, media executives, and a chair of the judiciary. 

Now, before you start tut-tutting and thinking, I’m not at all prejudiced, are you guilty of the following? For instance, do you believe women talk more than men? Do you think men are just innately better at maths and physics? And do you describe women in your job references as good team workers, while referring to men as showing leadership skills? Do you think women are more emotional than men, especially in relationships? That men are poor at reading emotional cues and more rational than their female counterparts? If so, you’re as guilty as everyone else of holding mistaken beliefs inflicted on you by a biased media – and are also knee-deep in the sin of positive stereotyping. 

“Female stereotypes may now be more positive than they once were but women are generally labelled with traits such as being caring or nurturing, which are not deemed as valuable in a business context as ‘male’ traits, such as being decisive. By accepting these positive stereotypes, women have in effect allowed themselves to be portrayed as less capable and less valuable employees,” say the authors.

“There is overwhelming evidence that there are no genuine differences between the genders in the context of work,” says Jo Kandola, “but perpetuating the idea of differences means women continue to be held back in their careers – particularly when it comes to leadership roles.”  

The authors look at how organisations can take action. “Recognising bias in an organisation – and having the will to change it – are both key to eliminating prejudice against women in the workplace,” says Jo. “Challenging bias is everybody’s responsibility. We all need to make it part of everything we do.”

The authors begin by stating that, contrary to popular belief, women were much more integrated in early cultures but factors such as the forced acceptance of certain religions and the development of an agricultural society led to women being side-lined. As I’m interested in anthropology, I have read plenty of articles that back the Kandolas’ research. For example, a recent interesting piece in the Smithsonian magazine states that the picture we have of the Vikings, as marauding male warriors, needs to be updated as plenty of women donned their metal helms and took up arms as well. 

Things worsened after the Industrial Revolution as the idea of the male as breadwinner emerged, and a woman’s role became more family focused, with a brief respite when women joined the war effort.

However, sexist ideas have been around since the beginning of human history. And they argue that our present-day views still echo those of the Greek philosophers, when women were thought of as hysterics and not to be trusted with anything too mentally taxing. Even Desmond Morris, the cuddly face of zoology and anthropology on TV, has said he feels “disturbed and angry” at the way women are treated today: “This trend towards male domination is simply not in keeping with the way in which homo sapiens have developed over millions of years.”

The Kandolas argue that the notion of gender in the workplace is a social construction, devised by men, such as the engineers of the post-industrial world, and the professional guilds, to give power to the male workforce while insisting women should know their place - in the home. 

I, personally, feel there is nothing wrong with a division of labour – if you can afford to, why shouldn’t the woman (or man) take time out to raise the children. However, the authors state evidence that suggests that women are badly affected by taking time out of their careers to raise children – and men are even worse off if they dare to break the status quo, known as a ‘stereotype threat’. Global research by the World Economic Forum revealed that when women took extended maternity leave, only 54% returned to the same level of management or higher – and it’s 46% for men. Only 3% of part-time working mothers are corporate managers. However, professional women, including managers, who work part-time are expected to put in longer hours, with less autonomy.

Stereotype threats also hold back women in the workplace by having a personal negative mental effect. For instance, women who are seen as succeeding in a male-dominated workplace are imbued with negative traits by both sexes, and this can discourage women from going for that promotion. In fact, even asking for a pay rise can label a woman as a troublemaker.

For example, the former Australian PM Julia Gillard has been criticised for her weight, dress sense, and personality, with both political opponents and journalists denouncing her in the most sexist terms.

Ambivalent sexism is also often at work. A woman who is good at her job, for example, may be praised in a performance review but then denied promotion or a pay increase.

Frances O’Grady is the first female general secretary of the TUC. She explains the industries acting ‘against’ women aren’t just the ones you might think: in 'blue collar' roles within catering or manufacturing, for example, but in middle-class white-collar professions. “Thousands of people are now in jobs [beneath their education or experience level] that they wouldn’t otherwise have been,” she says. 

Even academics show surprising bias. For instance, Cambridge only admitted female students in 1946. In 2005, Harvard professor Steven Pinker said, due to their different brains, there would naturally be fewer women in the higher echelons of academia in the maths and sciences. And at a 2012 diversity conference in London, one academic said there would never be more than 5% of women in foreign exchange dealing due to their hormones.And, if you think this is just a few old white male, middle-class dinosaurs, think again. Women show just as much gender bias. For example, in 2012, 127 professors at American universities were sent CVs to determine a candidate’s suitability for lab manager. All the CVs were identical but half had John as the name and half had Jennifer. John received an average score of 4 for competence, Jennifer 3.3. John was offered a salary of $30,328, Jennifer $26,508. 

Employers were prepared to pay a 14% premium just to hire a man. (Visit )

Jo, a senior editor on a newspaper, said she had first-hand experience of this bias. She says: “I had one female manager who I believe actually thought men could do a better job than women. Now, that may have been because she was totally incompetent at what she did, or just the fact that she had an inferiority complex.

“She saw all women as a threat to her hard-won position of authority and instead of encouraging or fostering our talent, she sought to crush it through lack of acknowledgement or, worse, public humiliation. Men, meanwhile, were admired, roundly and publicly congratulated. It always struck me that had this been an older male boss giving such attention to young female employees, it would not have been tolerated.”

It seems a shame that we can’t support each other’s ambitions, as demonstrated in my previous blog. After all, today’s workforce is organised to make life easy for men. Also, no areas of the workforce have a 50-50 gender split. For instance, men predominate in management, women in support roles, not through competency but status.

In the Davies Report into female board members, it states that the main reason for the lack of women at boardroom level is due to “bias, prejudice, or stereotypical behaviour”.

Women are still seen as being less competent at running businesses, despite the fact the CEOs of the leading companies responsible for creating the recession are overwhelmingly male. 

The report When Fit is Fundamental showed that women line managers received lower performance scores than their female staff and male counterparts. Women’s competence and performance were rated significantly lower than that of their male counterparts when they were in a male-dominated profession.

However, you should congratulate yourself for getting so far in your career. Women have to consistently outperform men to be promoted, as much as 250% according to one study. 

Yet you’ll probably find you’re still less valued, and so less well-paid, than your male peers. In the Bible, pay rates are listed in Leviticus as 50% to 60% of men’s, in 16th c Europe, it’s the same, in 19th c Europe, women earned between a third and two-thirds of men’s wages, (with some exceptions, like during the Black Death). Today, the gender pay gap is associated with women being less qualified, occupational sex segregation (women being kept in lowlier roles), women being mothers, in part-time work, women as carers, ethnicity, with research indicating discrimination is responsible for about a third of the pay gap. 

For example, despite Scandimania making us believe these European countries are more egalitarian than us, in Denmark from 1996 to 2005, it was found female senior executives earned 69% of men’s wages. In all countries, the stats are worse for mothers and those who work part-time. So it can be argued that women’s pay hasn’t changed that much from biblical times.

Research shows women’s success is more likely attributed to external factors like luck, while men are judged as having innate leadership skills. When looking to promote/hire a manager, more requirements are looked for. Both women and men are biased in favour of male candidates for senior roles. And in The Psychology of Work Organisations, it states the differences between men and women are “so small in fact that it is safer to assume that there is no difference in leadership effectiveness between men and women.”

The authors even dismay the left brain/right brain concept as a myth, saying epigenetics shows the brain is more elastic. So how can we get more women into management positions? Tokenism obviously isn’t the answer. In the Civil Service, for example, where there has been a successful drive to push women into management roles, the women said they still felt they were being side-lined in important decisions and treated as mere tokens. There is also resentment at doing this.

Firstly, when you write job ads, tend to avoid male-dominated, often military-style jargon. Secondly, ensure your company extends its network to be inclusive of women. Don’t penalise any candidate who wants to work flexibly, from home, or part-time. The authors say, in tomorrow’s more technology-based world, this is the future and the future is more feminine. And “men must stop excluding women and women must stop colluding with men’s exclusion of women.”

We also need to be careful about indoctrinating the next generation with our sexist stereotypes. As a mum myself (and please don’t stereotype me as weaker because of that statement!), I see on a daily basis the bombardment of sexism flooding my little girl’s brain. Research has shown that people pick up biased views from toddlerhood. 

You only have to go into The Entertainer to see boys and girls are already segregated, with the boys’ section in blue (Star Wars, train sets, science kits) and the girls relegated to a swathe of pink in the back of the store (Disney princesses, toy kitchens, and vacuum cleaners). Although it is easy to argue that girls naturally prefer pink (I didn’t though my daughter does), this segregation is a recent bias. A century ago, boys wore pink and girls blue, as pink is akin to red, a more aggressive colour.

Are you ready to accept a new way of thinking? Well, whatever you decide, it’s worth reading the book yourself, in order to come to your own conclusion.

My view tends to echo O’Grady’s: “Lots of women do remarkably well. That's what women do,” she says. "Women may not have as many choices as we believe we should have, and we make the best of them. But you can’t ignore the fact that there’s inequality.” 

The Invention of Difference is published by Pearn Kandola Publishing and is available from  and

• Are we ready to step out from behind our comforting, but erroneous, ideas about gender? I’m attending a Harvard Business School conference on gender this week so, if anyone has anything to add, I may do another blog in the future on this topic.


  • Rhian Morgan

    Thanks for your comments. My original blog was only supposed to be 750 words - and it's quite a bit longer than that! But, even so, as this is only an online blog, I could, unfortunately, only scratch the surface. Last night, I attended a talk from an American author who has written a book on how to change the views of organisations from the top down. I will write up this talk over the weekend and post it in comments for you.

  • Hannah Semple


    Rather than yet another book telling us what we already know, I would love to read a recommendation on a practical and applicable leadership and management book written by a woman who is -dare I say it- a self defining feminist. Because I for one am sick of trawling through the pages of management books stuffed full of male posturing and 'advice' which essentially aims to keep in place the 'old boys’ network' model which has inhibited the success of women for generations.

  • Hannah Semple

    I really enjoyed this article, as a woman at the start of my career. However, I also felt a bit like I was reading an article explaining that the sky is blue. I feel like this article didn't scratch the surface of this topic, so much as gently tiptoe around the edge of it. I would really like to see more blog posts like this. However, while I see the value in a book which lays out these important arguments regarding the nature/nurture debate on gender roles in an accessible way, obviously this is important in order to get the point across to people who are unfamiliar with academic literature around the subject, it needs to go further.

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