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Gender-specific socialization - is that why there are fewer women in leadership positions?

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In 2021, women in Germany are still underrepresented on the executive floors of companies. Why is this still the case in a country that praises itself as so progressive? Should companies pay more attention to hiring women as executives in the future?

Prof. Dr. Marion Schick, Labor Director and Member of the Board of Management for Human Resources at Telekom, knows: "[...] companies are harming themselves (if there are hardly any women in management positions). They are depriving themselves of the skills and talents that hundreds of thousands of highly qualified women have. From my point of view, this is a moral issue, but primarily a business issue." 

In this article, we highlight one reason why fewer women than men still make it into corporate leadership positions today. We also explain why companies would benefit significantly from hiring more women as executives in the future. Finally, we provide practical tips to actively address the problem.

Why there are fewer women in leadership positions

The fact that there are fewer female bosses in today's workplace cannot be attributed to the fact that women are less qualified than men. Today, the percentage of women who graduate from high school and university is even slightly higher than that of men.

But what is the reason, if not the difference in qualifications, that significantly more men than women make it to the executive floors? Gender-specific socialization plays a not insignificant role in answering this question. We explain here what is meant by this:

Socialization in general means the process in which we humans acquire to think, feel, believe, want and react in the way that is customary and approved in our society. This process begins at birth and continues throughout life. People who particularly shape us in this process are our parents, but also friends, teachers and other important people close to us. Also, what we consume today through media such as television or social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Instagram) influences our thinking, feeling, believing and wanting.

Now, what gender socialization means is this: scientists now know that only a small part of the differences between men and women can be explained by biology or genetics. The majority of the differences are "brought up", socially developed, ergo socialized. In concrete terms, this means that girls and boys are taught different gender roles from an early age, that different expectations are placed on them and that they are given different opportunities, and that they therefore develop differently.

To now specifically address the issue of "why there are fewer women in leadership positions": According to a report by the National Coalition of Girls Schools, young men today are still being raised to be confident, assertive, and self-promoting. Still circulating in our society is the assumption that these are "typically masculine" traits, as well as that science subjects such as engineering and math are "masculine" fields and roles of power and leadership are meant for them rather than for women.

Young women, on the other hand, are suggested by the mostly skeptical to negative attitudes toward female leaders that persist in our culture that it is inappropriate and undesirable for them to possess the "typically masculine" traits associated with a leadership role. They are more likely to be expected to possess qualities such as empathy, kindness, caring, thoughtfulness, etc., which seem to be at odds with the "typically male" leadership traits.

As a result, women still think of themselves as being rather unsuited for leadership roles as well as for other roles of power. Men, on the other hand, have fewer doubts about their suitability for leadership positions. Accordingly, fewer women than men aspire to positions of leadership; they are correspondingly underrepresented.

It should be noted here that there are certainly exceptions. Also, the role models of men and women are gradually disappearing from the mind of society. Nevertheless, a clear trend is still discernible today.

Of course, there are numerous other factors that contribute to the fact that there are fewer women in leadership positions. However, the one of gender socialization will receive special attention in this article.

Why companies benefit from hiring more women in leadership positions

Whether more women should be hired into leadership positions in companies is not only a moral question, but also a business question, to return once again to the quote from Prof. Dr. Marion Schick that introduces the article. What is meant by this is that a balanced staffing of management positions by men and women would bring many advantages for companies. This has even been proven by studies. We will show you some of these advantages here:

  • Today, women represent over 50% of university graduates and thus the majority of the potential next generation of specialists as well as leaders. Not only would they enrich companies with their qualifications, but they could also fill personnel shortages in the specialist and management areas.
  • Companies that recruit a balanced number of men and women to management bodies are regarded as progressive. They generally have a better corporate image and thus an advantage in recruiting competent and highly qualified women (as well as men).
  • In a company with a balanced proportion of women, employees, especially female employees, are more motivated. They feel that they are represented, which has a positive effect on their performance as well as on the overall working atmosphere in the company.
  • Studies show that female customers are more satisfied with a company's product or service when they see that women are represented in the company's executive suite.

How executive coaching can help

The way people think shapes their actions much more than their genes, their biology. If the goal is to recruit more women to leadership positions in the future, then the way women think about themselves as well as the way women are thought of must change accordingly. Business coaching can be of immense help in uncovering and changing ways of thinking that you are not aware of. We show you some tips here:

  • Reflect: As a first step, it is helpful to reflect on the extent to which girls and boys are actually socialized differently today. Perhaps you can think of examples of differences from your childhood.
  • Raise your awareness of biases: Beliefs we hold about "typically feminine" and "typically masculine" characteristics may feel instinctive and natural. However, realize that stereotypes are learned and instilled.
  • Choose your beliefs: No one is entirely free of prejudice. However, we have the chance to work on our beliefs and redefine them. Ask yourself: is this belief useful? Is it holding me back or holding others back?
  • Focus on accomplishments: A leader's job is to guide employees so that company goals are met and projects are realized. Whether this is accomplished well is not a matter of gender. Focus on a person's performance and use this to decide whether or not he or she is suitable as a boss.
  • Use your reach: Consciously draw attention to women in leadership positions. Use your reach in the company, on social media, etc., to give them recognition and appreciation, but also to show young women a role model.

In our business coaching sessions at Sparrks, you will be given many more coaching tools in regards to leadership. If you would like to deal more intensively with the topic of "women in leadership" or even "prejudices against men and women”, you have come to the right place: We have specific coaching offers that explicitly deal with these topics. Book a demo call and visit our website to learn more!