Leadership is Gender Blind but Biases Aren’t

Barling: Women in leadership is one of the last places of vast discrimination in our society. Men and media, what are you going to do about it?
Leadership is Gender Blind but Biases Aren’t

The essentials

As he was researching his latest book, The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders, Queen’s School of Business Professor Julian Barling was struck by the divergent attitudes on male and female leadership. On the one hand, there is no genetic basis for thinking that men are better suited to leadership; in reality, girls are as predisposed to leadership as boys. On the other, unconscious and subtle biases in our society are holding women back from assuming leadership positions. In this interview, conducted by The Minerva Foundation for BC Women, Barling says both men and the media play a crucial role if we hope to achieve gender parity anytime soon. Minerva supports women and girls throughout B.C. to achieve their leadership potential.

If girls are as predisposed to leadership as boys, why do you think there aren’t more women in leadership roles?

I think social differences cause the disparity. How parents raise their children, how the media portray women; there are biases both cultural and organizational, whether or not it’s conscious. For example, our society is structured so that it’s the responsibility of women to raise the family. It’s an expectation, which therefore allows bias to continue. They’re seen as “less committed to their work.” Instead of seeing motherhood as an opportunity to develop leadership skills, it’s seen as a “gap in career.”

In actual fact, women may have an edge due to their socialization. To get to a leadership position, they had to accomplish so much more than men. And the notion that it’s up to women to change things is wrong. It’s not the women who have created this problem.

Women in leadership is one of the last places of such vast discrimination in our society. It’s not just about women in leadership — gender is the tip of an unstable iceberg. Imagine the discrimination if you’re an ethnic woman or a pregnant woman or wearing a hijab. As bad as the gender situation is, there are far worse issues in our country, a country that prides itself on social justice.

Recent research shows that companies with more women in senior positions also perform better. Why is this?

Problem solving, communication, new member socialization, and mentorship are often viewed as more likely to come from senior women in the organization. Women, as a group, are more democratic, participative, and transformational than men. These traits are associated with successful leadership. Therefore, this too suggests that it’s not that women are less successful leaders; it’s that they are chosen less.

You mentioned in a previous interview that you “worry a lot about what young girls see when they look around the world and dream about the future.” Can you expand on this?

When kids dream, they dream big. They dream about running things and making changes. The message to boys is: you can do it. But what do we say to the girls? What does the world say?

What girls see is that all the powerful people are males. Can we honestly say to them, Wonderful. The world is ahead of you? Society keeps reinforcing the notion that the world is gendered and so then one gender ends up unequal. I don’t want girls to be self-defeating or almost biased against themselves. And I want to help create the change we need. It’s challenging, for sure, but a wonderful opportunity.

If you could speak to these young girls, what would you say?

If there’s only one thing I could say it would be that from everything we know from a socially scientific basis, we know you’ll be just as good as boys at anything associated with being a leader. Therefore, don’t listen to the media’s portrayals of women. You can do it.

As a professor and expert on the subject of leadership, can you offer any advice as to how people can nurture their leadership skills?

Leadership is all about the imagination; it’s about imagining you are the other. So before doing anything else, put yourself in the other’s shoes. Ask yourself, how would I respond if I were them?


Julian Barling is Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen's School of Business and author of The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2014).

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