Women in leadership positions: Five gender biases and five ways to break through them


While many of us like to think there has been great progress in the business and technology space when it comes to women in leadership positions, the reality is that there is far more work to be done. Case in point: The New York Times recently revealed that there are more CEOs named John than there are women in the S&P 1500.

As a woman in a marketing leadership position for a growing IT consultancy based in India, I’m grateful to have had mentors through the years who have helped me put gender-based obstacles in perspective, and given me the motivation to overcome them. I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with inspiring leaders. One such inspiring leader is Sangita Singh who was my colleague at Wipro. She and I have had multiple conversations about how gender biases have changed over the years. Unfortunately, although they haven’t changed much over time, we both agree that women have learned to deal with them better.

When I contemplate the different types of biases about women in leadership, there seems to be five pervasive ones that come to mind.

Women are hard workers, but not smart enough: Its 11.30 PM IST, and at one corner the office, the light is still on. The phone is still ringing and the executive is still engrossed in reviews with her US team. Aah she isn’t smart. She is just hard working!

Women shouldn’t be too career-focussed: It’s a Friday evening and her kids want to go to the movies, but there are still weekly calls pending with Europe. She is too career-oriented!

Women are good supporters, but not strategist: There is a business leadership position open, but the CEO thinks the company needs a male candidate because “women are good at support functions and managing P&L, but they aren’t strategic enough to lead core business roles.”

Women who look good are using appearances to advance. Tina is really presentable when she comes to work every day. She just looks really good. She’s clearly using her appearance as her ticket to a leadership position.

Women are too indecisive. While John, the former CEO, would have made this decision on his own, Cheryl, the new CEO, wants to elicit and consider the board’s executive leadership advice and insight. She is too indecisive, too consensus-driven.

Does any of the above sound familiar to you and your immediate context? If yes, then you’ve likely experienced one or more of these real-world biases – or something similar – against women in leadership positions.

The good news is that there are many examples of women leaders who broke through gender biases to establish a well-earned leadership position. From Marissa Mayers, Sheryl Sandberg, Lori Greiner to my colleague Sangita.

One motivational insight Sangita shared with me is her ‘spire’ mantra when dealing with gender biases – focus on aspire, perspire, and inspire, defocus on the rest of the clutter around you. My own personal mantra is to be deaf and dumb at the right times, so that the unwanted chatter doesn’t bother me, and I don’t waste time justifying my value to those who don’t matter.

From a practical point of view, there are some concrete steps women aspiring to leadership positions can do when confronted with gender bias:

  • Ask for active mentoring – don’t assume your organisation knows your ambition.
  • Don’t try to fit in for the heck of it – your femininity is an asset, not a liability.
  • Persistence pays – you need to run the extra mile for the seat at the table, so keep at it.
  • There is no such thing as perfection – there’s no perfect wife, mom, or boss, so don’t even aim for it. Just be the best you can be because that’s all that matters.
  • Practice the three “e’s” and leverage the power of networking – too many of us are sub-par networkers. So join forums and engage, enlighten, and educate yourselves on a regular basis.

What are your thoughts on gender bias? The road to progress and gender equality in business starts with shared insight and conversation, start one today.


About the authorMeenu Bagla is a Marketing Maverick with 16 years of global experience in e-commerce and Start-ups, IT & BPO industry across the spectrum of Consulting and IT services, enterprise-business solutions and technology products players. She created and led the Global Marketing function at Wipro for over 6 years, and is currently the VP of Marketing at Quinnox. She also owns the designer cake brand “CakeStylista”.

(image credit: Shutterstock)

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory)


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