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This is what it takes to get more women leaders in the workplace

Companies need to do a lot more than holding diversity training.

This is what it takes to get more women leaders in the workplace
[Photo: julief514/iStock]

Women frequently say to us, “The women I work with are just plain nasty,” or “The senior women act like queen bees; they only care about protecting their positions.”

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But there’s plenty of evidence that shows the “queen bee” syndrome is a myth. When we conducted research for our new book, It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It, we discovered that women’s often fraught relationships with the women they work with have nothing to do with women being predisposed to be antagonistic to or competitive with other women. To the contrary, we became convinced that women often find it difficult to achieve satisfying, positive same-gender workplace relationships because of the nature of those workplaces.

The gendered nature of American workplaces

By and large, American workplaces are highly gendered, by which we mean that they are dominated by men and steeped in masculine norms, values, and expectations. In such workplaces, women have fewer career advancement opportunities than men. As a result, women frequently see career advancement as a zero-sum contest with other women to gain access to limited resources, opportunities, and the visibility needed to get ahead. They often feel a need to identify with the men leading their organizations and to distance themselves from other women. As a result, they can come to believe they must adopt a masculine management style that can be highly off-putting to other women.

But if gendered workplaces are a principal cause of women’s same-gender interpersonal difficulties, how do we “de-gender” these workplaces? In our view, we can only do this by having a critical mass of senior women leaders who can influence organizational policies and procedures. Of course, this has been the goal of the ubiquitous diversity and inclusion efforts undertaken by business and professional organizations over the past 30 years—often with little or no effect. Women occupy only 10 percent of top management positions in S&P 1500 companies, constitute only 11 percent of the top earners in Fortune 500 companies, and serve as only 12.1 percent of chief financial officers and the next three highest-paid executives at Fortune 500 companies.

Today, many companies pay lip service to diversity but don’t go very far in taking meaningful actions. The problem is that gendered workplaces are gendered cultures, and cultures don’t change just because of a new policy or a series of diversity workshops. Cultures change when conditions change, and the gendered perceptions of our workplaces are unlikely to change until more women share the power to shape and direct these workplaces.

Of course, this means we have a chicken-or-egg dilemma. To de-gender our workplaces, we need more women in senior leadership. To get more women into senior leadership, we need to de-gender the workplace. Here are some ideas on how we can move forward.

1. Education

A significant impediment to increasing gender diversity is that many of the men leading our major organizations believe that their organizations are true meritocracies. But this is a false and dangerous belief. Until everyone acknowledges the hurtful reality of gender bias and the structural impediments to women’s career advancement, we’re not going to move forward.

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2. Interrupting bias

Gender bias is not going to be “eliminated.” It’s like the Müller-Lyer optical illusion of two equal parallel lines looking unequal because one has arrows pointing out and the other has arrows pointing in. It doesn’t matter that we know the lines are equal in length; we still don’t “see” them as equal.

Gender bias works in the same way. It doesn’t matter that we consciously believe women are just as competent, ambitious, and competitive as men. Our implicit stereotypes don’t let us “see” them as equal. That’s why we need to prevent stereotypes from having a discriminatory effect on assignments, training, evaluations, compensation, and promotion. We can do this by employing (and designing) systems that take as much subjectivity out of these processes as possible.

3. Flexibility

Women are not going to move up as fast (or as far) as men if their workplaces continue to operate as though work and home were separate, nonintersecting life spheres. Men may be able to thrive in such workplaces, but women—who still bear most of the burden when it comes to domestic responsibilities—cannot. Workplaces need to be flexible and open to new arrangements, one that allows both men and women to balance their home demands with their work responsibilities.

4. Celebrating the small wins

We won’t get a critical mass of women in leadership positions overnight. That’s why we need to approach diversity like we approach programs for CO2 emissions. Companies need to set a long-term goal and commit to taking incremental (but consistent) steps to get there.

5. Stop seeing it as a zero-sum game

Diversity isn’t a zero-sum game that requires men to lose for women to gain. True diversity improves creativity, productivity, and profitability for everyone. Once men become convinced this is true, they are typically prepared to participate in the effort to make diverse leadership a reality. It’s only fair that we expect men to take responsibility. After all, they have a lot to gain when we see more women in leadership positions.


Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris are the authors of It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It (Nicholas Brealey/Hachette 2019).

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