Gender and middle leadership: A personal reflection

Dr Sadie Hollins @_WISEducation

‘How you are seen may affect how you are heard.’  This was one of many lines in Prof. Jennifer Eberhardt’s book ‘Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do’ that resonated with me. In this context Eberhardt was talking about the gender bias in the historic hiring of female classical musicians for orchestras. Mounting criticism over the lack of female musicians during the 1970s led to many orchestras adopting ‘blind auditions’ so as to not reveal the identity of the auditionee, and therefore avoid any bias that may unfairly affect the outcome.

As Eberhardt notes, female musicians had long been the victims of negative stereotypes that downgraded their talent, believed, for example, to have ‘smaller techniques’ and producing ‘smaller sound’ than men. They were also alleged to be more temperamental, less consistent and requiring ‘special attention and treatment’. A study by Goldin and Rouse (2000) looked into gender bias in the hiring of orchestral musicians. They acquired audition records from leading orchestras in the US, and examined the experiences of over 7000 candidates in more than 14,000 rounds of auditions to explore the effectiveness of blind auditioning.

It turned out that the blind audition process increased the likelihood that a female musician would be hired to a leading orchestra by 25%.

How you are seen definitely seems to affect how you are heard.

Another recent study by sociologist Natasha Quadlin (2018), sought to investigate how gender and academic performance impact upon employment outcomes for recent college graduates. Quadlin submitted over 2,100 fictional resumes for job openings for entry-level jobs in the US and manipulated gender, academic achievement and college major to see how these factors affected the likelihood of a job callback. In addition to this she also followed 250 ‘hiring decision-makers’ across a range of companies to monitor how applicants’ qualifications and personal characteristics affected decisions regarding callbacks and hiring.

Quadlin found that men with high Grade Point Averages were twice as likely to get a callback than women candidates, based on their resume. Further, when Math was their major, men were more likely to get a callback by a ratio of 3:1. Following Quadlin’s follow-up research with these hiring decision-makers, she stated that ‘gendered stereotypes’ were to blame for these discrepancies. Quadlin concluded:

'Employers value competence and commitment among men applicants, but instead privilege women applicants who are perceived as likeable. This standard helps moderate-achieving women, who are often described as sociable and outgoing, but hurts high-achieving women, whose personalities are viewed with more skepticism.'

When I read about this study in Eberhardt’s book it made me reflect on my own experiences, and the strong desire (and pressure) that I have always felt to be ‘likeable’. I don’t know exactly how or why this came about, but growing up I vividly remember telling myself that it was important to be nice and to get on with people. A lot of the time though, this came at the expense of my own self-esteem and self-worth.

The socialisation of girls, how we learn how we should act, and the societal expectations of our behaviour, have historically been undeniably different from boys. In particular there seems to have been a long-held belief that, as a woman, if you are nice, and kind, and polite, then you’ll have an ‘easier’ time. After all, it’s hard(er) to have personal and professional issues with people that are nice… that seems to be the logic that we use with ourselves, and therefore also becomes what we expect from other women.

Yet, as I entered the world of work, that didn’t seem to happen. I experienced multiple incidences where I was undermined and under-supported, and was left time and time again with one overriding question:

Would I be treated or spoken to like this if I were a man?’ I couldn’t help thinking that I probably wouldn’t… I didn’t see it happening to my male colleagues, even those of similar age or experience – they almost seemed to have an invisible shield around them.

Once I hit my thirties, I had something of an epiphany. I realised that ‘being nice’ as one of the sole parts underpinning my professional identity wasn’t serving me anymore. In fact, it was damaging me. This is not to say that I’m no longer nice (I actually am, I promise!) but I no longer feel I have to compromise who I am, or what I think, in order to appear ‘nice’ in a professional setting. I will try to constructively disagree when I think it’s the right thing to do. I will ask the questions that I think need to be asked. I will confidently share my views and suggestions.

However, whilst this experience has been liberating, now that I have found myself in a middle leadership position, I remain particularly conscious of the difficulty that many women can experience when shifting to positions of management and responsibility. I remember someone asking me once, ‘Would you ever want to be a school leader?’…. ‘Absolutely not in a million years’ I answered.

The reason I gave (apart from the obvious ‘that seems like a lot of work!’) was that I didn’t want to have to compromise who I was in order to do a job. When probed about what I meant by this, I said that building relationships and listening to others is what I feel I do well, and I feared losing this.

Initially I thought that this tension between who you are as a person and who you need to be as a leader was a conflict free of gender. However, I now feel that there are compromises that female leaders in particular have to make in order to fit into what is still very much a patriarchal domain (despite the higher ratio of female teachers in the profession).

I got caught up in an intense self-examination. Could I be both myself and a manager? I couldn’t help but feel that, as a woman, I might have to compromise who I was. And yet, as I struggled with this question, when I looked around I didn’t seem to see my male colleagues grappling with this. They appeared to be able to effortlessly flit from friend, to colleague, to manager, and back. One minute joking around in the staffroom, and the next holding serious meetings.

To this day, the stereotypes surrounding female leaders are alive and well. I myself often see women who I perceive to be assertive and good at their jobs being viewed as ‘difficult’ by male colleagues. My male counterparts often seem to receive praise in more obvious or public ways, whereas for women more often it appears to be downplayed (and dare I say, expected?) In my experience, men also seem to experience more leniency when under-performing, when compared with their female colleagues.

I appreciate that I am doing my own generalising here, and I know that these things aren’t true of all male professionals! I also acknowledge that I am still on a personal quest of figuring out how I can be myself and in a position of responsibility, in a way that holds true to my personality and what I stand for (as well as accounting for how I’ve ‘learnt’ to be).I am caught in a cycle of self-reflection, but also examining the role of society in how I present myself, as a person and as a leader. I am torn between wanting to do what I was socialised to do (be ‘nice’) and being respected as an equal.

Ultimately, I know that how I am seen does affect how I am heard, but how I see myself is what I value the most.

I am kind and challenging. I am a team player and I ask questions. I am a woman and I can be both.

This blog was first posted here. 


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