Embrace a ‘systems perspective’ to move the needle on women’s leadership

Organizations must rethink the concepts and values associated with leadership and work to bring systems into alignment.

In the past two years, women across the world have experienced unprecedented job loss, both voluntary and involuntary, due to the pandemic and its aftermath. As a result, this “she-cession” has shined a spotlight on the many untenable systemic imbalances that greatly affect women. Now more than ever, there’s an opportunity to reconsider assumptions and expectations — both inside and outside of work — to start turning back the tide.

When organizations attempt to rebalance the gender gap in the workplace, their first choice is often to offer women’s leadership programs. While these programs do have a place in leadership development, they often take a “fix the female” approach — that is, they train women to “fit” into a system designed for (mostly white) men. 

In contrast, to make real, positive and sustainable change, researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership believe organizations must address gender gaps from a systems perspective and change policies and practices that disadvantage women. Organizations must rethink the concepts and values associated with leadership and work to bring systems into alignment. While change isn’t a simple undertaking, it can be achieved over time by starting with these steps:

Avoid treating women as a one-size-fits-all group

There’s no such thing as a “typical woman,” and assumptions about a person based solely on gender are often wildly inaccurate. Women’s experiences are affected by multiple social identities and roles such as gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, organizational level, family/caregiver status, class, etc. 

Widely varied across cultures and geographies, identities with great bias in one setting (e.g., family background, language) may contain little bias in another. This means different women face different challenges — some cumulating across identities. Because women aren’t a monolithic group, organizational policies and practices must be flexible enough to be customizable to different situations.

Consider the context

Legislation that protects women’s rights — both at work and at home — varies widely across the globe. The various forms of legislation address discrimination, the ability to occupy certain jobs or roles, sexual harassment, equal pay for equal work, domestic violence, workplace termination for becoming pregnant, statutory parental leave rights and legal protection against being punished for using parental leave. Different countries provide different levels of support for paid maternity leave and subsidized child care. Organizational policies vary just as widely, and these laws and policies can affect employee experiences at work and home. It is important to periodically revisit such policies and get employee feedback on what improvements can be made. Often, these improvements are simply additional flexibility rather than additional benefits. 

Drop the “work wife” expectation

Women are often placed in the role of “organizational wives.” They’re expected to help out at the office, whether it’s taking on extra work to assist a colleague, tending to tidying or organizing tasks, being asked to take notes for others or even bringing treats for team members’ birthdays. And they’re often penalized if they don’t, by being considered standoffish, unlikeable or “not a team player.” On top of this gender-based burden, women of color can face an additional racial burden in which they are expected to take on service activities that assist others of their same race, a phenomenon known as “cultural taxation.” 

These invisible layers of additional work take women away from their core tasks, and as a result, time spent on the measurable outcomes that factor into performance reviews, raises and promotions. Men often benefit doubly in these situations, because not only is their time not taken up doing this invisible work, but they also gain an advantage from work behind the scenes that makes the group and organization more effective. 

Acknowledge how home imbalances influence work imbalances

Additionally, most women have more responsibilities than men at home. Global reports show that on every continent, women spend more time than men in unpaid caretaking activities while men have more leisure time than women. In the United States, women who work full-time spend 22 percent more time than men on unpaid household and care work. Even in dual-career couples, women tend to make greater career sacrifices than their male partners and shoulder a larger burden of housework, child care and elder care.

Taken together, these expectations — both at work and at home — constitute a significant extra workload for women. Not surprisingly, female employees experience more burnout, stress and exhaustion than male employees. One woman we interviewed compared it to competing against someone while wearing a 75-pound backpack.

Managers and leaders often don’t recognize when women are doing the majority of the “helping” because they aren’t sensitized to it. Organizations can help break the pattern by raising awareness. A good place to watch out for this dynamic is in meetings — when time-consuming, low-ranking work often gets handed out. Often, women will be implicitly or explicitly encouraged to volunteer for “extra” unrewarded tasks which can become part of their role — resulting in a phenomenon called role creep

Encourage your leaders to observe these dynamics, and interrupt them with an equity-first approach. Perhaps a rotational system could be developed or additional administrative staff hired to take on support tasks. At the end of the day, what’s measured matters — if the helping behaviors are important (and plenty of research suggests they are), then quantify them and reward them accordingly. 

Bring men into the equation

The tension between the workplace and the home is an important factor in women’s stalled career progress. Although societal beliefs about gender roles at work may have changed, traditional care roles at home are more sedimented. Too often, the focus is on “supporting” women in their caretaking roles rather than acknowledging that caretaking should be an equally shared responsibility. Although attitudes have shifted, actual behavior change has lagged.

And gender bias doesn’t only affect women. Men also feel pressured to conform to social role expectations. For example, even if family-friendly policies are offered, men may face repercussions for using them. Increasing awareness and providing clear communication are key to driving lasting behavioral change around working parents. Male executives who role model caretaking and use family-supportive policies will go a long way toward permitting other men to do the same. 

Rethink the traditional leadership paradigm

We live in an increasingly complex world in which the pace of change continues to accelerate, and no single leader has all the answers. Given critical issues such as climate and sustainability challenges, organizations need more innovative and creative solutions. This is why diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are so important — they encourage a range of perspectives from people who have different experiences from which to collectively address sticky organizational and societal problems.

It’s time we move from a “command and control” leadership paradigm to a more inclusive “partnership model” of leadership that prioritizes the collective good over individual self-interest. Organizations will benefit by adoptingleadership models focused on communal values such as compassion, altruism, integrity and equity — on a more collective orientation. We also need leaders who embrace the value of humility and are comfortable saying “I don’t know” — which allows space for more diverse viewpoints.

Unfortunately, women continue to be disadvantaged in evaluations of leadership because of bias and preconceived notions of what — and who — leadership “looks like.” A large-scale research study showed there were no gender differences when looking at overall ratings of leadership effectiveness. However, when looking at self-ratings, male leaders gave themselves higher ratings of leadership effectiveness than female leaders gave themselves. But when looking at others’ ratings of leadership effectiveness, others (e.g., coworkers, direct reports) rated female leaders as significantly more effective than male leaders. 

Too frequently, in evaluating leaders, we mistake confidence for competence. People often allow the most vocal and confident person — rather than the most competent person — to gain undeserved influence. This disadvantages women because they are less likely than men to engage in self-promotion at work. It also disadvantages male leaders who may display leadership in culturally distinct ways. 

Drive change from the top

Organizations are increasingly being held accountable by the public. This can come in the form of heightened scrutiny about gender wage gaps, how women are portrayed in advertising campaigns and whether an organization’s supply chain includes women-owned businesses. Rather than being reactive, forward-looking companies will embrace transparency on their journey to create more equitable, diverse and inclusive cultures and incorporate consistent measures to promote individual and organizational accountability

Recognition of gender biases needs to start at the top of the organization. Policies should be reconsidered and revised as necessary — with gender equity in mind. All employees must be educated about unconscious bias and encouraged to speak up when they see it.

It will take some time for an organization to transition and transform. Make space for people to become aware, understand and then process the changes needed to move toward a more equitable future — one that will benefit not only women but everyone.