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Why sexism to women in leadership prevails

How ingrained gender norms regarding communication can affect women in leadership positions.

Yes, we all know there is a gender disparity in leadership positions worldwide, and yes, we know that men are more likely to be CEOs than women. But did you know that there are fewer women in the top roles than there are men named John, Peter or David!? Okay, so let’s ask why. Why aren’t women chosen for top positions? Why do women refrain from putting themselves up for the top position? Why are people so opposed to women leaders?

“Ditch the witch”, pornographic cartoons and obsessions with the size of her behind dominated much of then Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s term in leadership. She had to deal with the onslaught of sexism and misogyny that came her way, that no man in leadership would ever have to deal with. The way she talked and conducted herself whilst being a leader wasn’t taken to a liking by other people, so they had to come forth and comment rude, ignorant, chauvinist remarks. I truly commend Gillard for realising that she should not put up with any of this anymore, and on behalf of herself and the women in leadership and politics she made sure people knew that we’ve had enough. Her electrifying address on the interminable sexism that she faced on a regular basis was fascinating and awe-inspiring to watch, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling this way because this speech quickly went viral and brought in congratulations from Obama and Clinton, the likes. One woman, among countless others, who was backhanded by sexism in leadership.

Take a look at what happened to Hillary Clinton. “The more successful and ambitious a woman is, the less likeable she becomes,” as stated by the woman herself, at the Women in the World Summit, New York. Her statement does ring true - she is no stranger to this paradox of female success. I’d like to think of her as one of the most qualified individuals who has ever run for president of the United States, and yet, with every step she took in her campaign trail, she was met with rampant misogyny and sexism. The point I want to make here is why does a country that voted for Obama, a democrat, two years in a row swap over to Trump, a republican? It just doesn’t make sense. Trump insulted so many people - black, Hispanics, women, the disabled and his own party leaders, just to name a few. He broke so many political norms; not releasing his tax returns, threatening to jail his opponent and his perpetual lying. If this doesn’t spell sexism, I don’t know what does. Hillary is proof a woman can work hard, rise to the top of her field and still have to compete against a less qualified man for the same job. Trump only exists because America voted for him. So let’s talk about the psyche behind this vote.

As soon as we reach the age where we can talk, we are told how to do so. “Do not speak, unless you are asked to do so. You are meant to be seen, not heard.” “Men don’t like loud women.” “Sit quietly, be polite at all times.” “Don’t raise your voice.” As girls, we are shackled by the chains of societal conventions, and therefore we stop resisting and sit, constantly overcast by the perpetually incessant shadow of the unsaid and unsayable. As we grow up, these statements stay in our consciousness, and as research has proven, women are found to be more overall expressive, tentative and polite in conversation. We use less powerful speech, swear less, and tend to weaken our statements. On the other hand, men are inclined to be more assertive and dominate the conversation. They are found to be forceful, aggressive, and are very goal oriented when it comes to the way in which they approach communication. When attempting to solve a problem, women are empathetic and are more inclined to offer unsolicited advice. Whereas men follow their natural tendency to offer a solution. The point of all this? These gender differences in communication have been perpetuated by women, who, ultimately, know no better, placing them at a disadvantage when interacting with others. As mentioned above, women speak more tentatively than men, who are known for their assertive speech, and thus, the implication remains that men are more confident and capable as leaders. Solution? Women: speak more confidently. But, no. It’s really not that simple.

There is a fine balancing act we need to try and carry out. Ever heard this before? “Geez, she’s acting like a b!#ch.” Often, that comment arises after a woman gives an order or is viewed as being ‘bossy’. When a woman is seen exerting control and dominance, especially in a leadership position, she is often judged, critiqued and condemned for her behaviour, simply because she is a woman. When we cross over to the threshold of male leadership characteristics, and violate the prescriptive female behaviour code, we are met with harsh penalties; to be successful as a female leader, we need to accept that we will be scrutinised as appearing “hostile” and “strident”. And obviously, through the perceived domain of leadership, men are automatically viewed as better leaders, while women have to work twice as hard and adopt masculine behaviours in order to be taken seriously as leaders. But here’s the catch. In a study of promotional recommendations, researchers have found that employers apply lower standards when evaluating the leadership ability of men relative to women because less evidence was needed to suggest a promotion of a male candidate over a female candidate! Seriously?! Come on! So exactly, what can we do? The solution is to learn how to vacillate between leadership styles based on situation and environment and know when to stay true to our gender and when to adapt a more masculine approach. And because of this, I think it’s fair to say that neither men nor women are better in leadership positions (contrary to popular belief), and leadership style effectiveness is purely contingent on the environment one is in.

Coming back to Hillary Clinton. The Blaze magazine’s Matt Walsh wrote a piece detailing why Hillary should not be president. He stated that, “Hillary embodies just about every negative stereotype of female managers and CEOs. She’s a cold, manipulative, conniving, thin-skinned, angry, distant, ruthless snob.” And there you go. If a man was considered ruthless, he’d be congratulated - why of course! It’s a necessity in the code for male behaviour and its not a sentiment shared with women. So when people see this quality arising in women, they don’t like it, because it’s not a normal conduct of behaviour women should have. Even though Walsh’s comment does not encompass all of America, it sure does serve as a platform for the voices of many other misogynistic individuals who would very much would feel the same way. He has provided a perfect example of the backlash a woman receives when she epitomises male characteristics in leadership. It appears as though we really can’t win. Not unless, of course, perspectives change. To quell the evident and disheartening gender disparity in leadership, maybe we should shift the existing paradigms of what a leader consists of and step aside for women leaders in 2018.