Women in Leadership: “Bitches get stuff done”

By Asha Dinesh

As a long-time disciple of the Fey-Poehler School of Feminism, I heartily applauded this proclamation by Tina Fey regarding the press coverage of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for presidential nomination. At the time I did not realise why it had struck a chord with me, but it has since become apparent that it was because I tend to be weary about how my behaviour may be perceived in situations where I have to assert authority. This can probably be traced back to the time some kid called me ‘bossy’ in primary school when I was clearly just trying to maintain order as the hopscotch queue disintegrated into chaos. Combine this with the British disposition of self-depreciation that I was initiated into during my teens after moving here aged twelve, and you could perhaps begin to explain the self-consciousness I experience when in a leadership position.

For every woman who has ever been called ‘bossy’, ‘cold’ or a ‘bitch’ for daring to assert her authority in a leadership position — whether in the public sector or in business — there is a man who would be called ‘assertive’, ‘ambitious’ or ‘authoritative’ for behaving in exactly the same way. This is observable across the board, be it a US presidential campaign or amongst ten year olds (so it wasn’t just me!). Despite some of these terms shedding their negative connotations (see the redefinition of ‘bitch’, as alluded to by Fey), gendered adjectives may have inadvertently played a major role in the gender gap in leadership evident today across politics, business and the media.

I suspect that the low number of female CEOs, MPs and heads of states has much to do with the discouragement faced by young girls when they show any signs of authority. Along with the gendered nature of these professions preventing women from rising to the top, this deeply embedded tendency in society may be discouraging women from even entering the competition to start with. The gender bias in early life, both in public and private institutions, results in the disruption of not only the learning processes required to be a leader, but also the construction of a leadership identity in women.

Recent research has highlighted that most of the twenty four female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies started in low-level jobs at the company they ended up leading. This suggests that organisational efforts to encourage gender equality in leadership are important and effective. But caution should be applied when professing the effectiveness of organisational change; a closer look at the financial sector reveals that a culture of sexism has prevailed despite changes in employment policies and hiring practices. While the major firms are achieving gender equality in overall staff numbers, less than 20% of senior roles in the City are held by women. That measure falls to 16% when looking at banking in particular. Other professions are not faring any better, especially in the the media. The Economist has just appointed the first female Editor in Chief in its 171-year history, which actually makes it a pioneer in this regard when compared to many other major publications. What is clear from the numbers is that it is necessary — but not sufficient — to have gender equalising processes in organisational hierarchies.

I will not waste space here detailing the economic, political and human rights arguments for gender equality in the public sphere, as they are obvious. It is a goal that is clearly achievable, as the list of the most gender equal countries in the world demonstrates. This list consists mostly of European countries and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, topped by the Nordic region. Intriguingly, it also features countries such as Nicaragua and Rwanda, where extreme poverty and political suppression persists. Breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ is therefore not entirely dependent on GDP or economic growth — although clearly these factors are influential. These countries prove that quotas and affirmative action policies play a crucial part in the achievement of gender parity in public institutions.

For an individual, the path to the top rank of their profession appears to be carved early on, requiring the early promotion of positive associations between femininity and leadership. The Ban Bossy campaign and other social media-led movements may have begun to effect a change in perceptions. This may perhaps be the best way to speak to future female leaders, but this needs to be supported by processes in education systems that instil ambition and self-belief in early life. The inclusion of young boys in the conversation is also essential in order to achieve widespread transformation — a message which the He for She Campaign attempts to reinforce. Fundamentally, changing the gender imbalance in leadership across society requires a deeper shift in early educational institutions in order to encourage girls to construct a leadership identity from a young age and continue developing it into their professional lives in order to overcome long-established biases.

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