Women in Leadership: The tyranny of low expectations

Women in Leadership: The tyranny of low expectations
March 20, 2018 Linda Murray

Last week I quoted Sheryl Sandberg and this week I will quote her again because I believe she’s on point. She says the tyranny of low expectations is responsible for the lack of women in leadership positions, and this is supported by the results of the 2017 Women in the Workplace 2017 study.

The US-based study found only one in 10 senior leaders is a woman and 50 percent of men think this is enough to say women are well represented in leadership.

No, this part might surprise you: around 30% of women think women are well represented at the one-in-ten level, too.

Sandberg calls it the tyranny of low expectations because we’re used to seeing the situation as it is – few women in leadership. We’ve become accustomed to it. It’s what we expect.

Low expectations.

Low expectation is a form of unconscious bias.

It’s the standard we’re not aware we hold. When we see a little girl play with trucks or a boy with dolls, we may be surprised because it’s out of the norm. Trucks require skill and planning to use, and that’s usually associated with males. Dolls are pretty little things that just need to be washed and dressed, something a woman is born to do as she births her children. Right? No. That’s the same unconscious bias playing out in our minds.

Now take that bias and apply it to the leadership role. Men have the useful leadership skills, while women only have the soft skills….

The results of low expectations.

Perhaps that explains why women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male peers when it comes to transitioning to manager level. This means there are fewer women in higher leadership roles and fewer role models for upcoming female leaders.

As a woman in leadership, you’re not only building your career, you’re creating a pathway for other women to follow you. So, in assuming the leadership role, you’ve also taken on the responsibility for helping other women up behind you.

What you can do to boost the numbers of women in leadership.

  1. First of all, be seen. A 2012 study showed female role models inspire other women’s leadership behaviour. Let women see they can be leaders, too.
  2. Be heard. Express your opinion, make your suggestions and speak up. If we don’t, the low expectations will remain in place.
  3. Be available. Be there to guide, coach or mentor emerging female leaders. They will look to you for advice.
  4. Collaborate. There aren’t many female leaders at the higher levels but there are enough that you can work together to support and encourage each other to greater success.
  5. Ask why. Whether you’re examining your own assumptions, or thinking about the systems in your organisation, ask why it should be that way. Consider the reasoning behind each one and look for the underlying bias. Overturn the low expectations we normally overlook.
  6. Expect more. Expect more of yourself and for yourself. What you do now will shape the ambitions and awareness of the women coming along behind you.

We’re not going to change the opinions of people overnight, but if we don’t make a start, it will never happen.

What do you think? Are low expectations putting limits on women in leadership? Are we really letting it happen?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let’s start a conversation in the comments below.


Comment (1)

  1. Virginia Simpson 6 years ago

    While the points made are all good ones, the one that really matters is #6. It is the ONLY one that addresses the truth that it is low, and erroneous, expectations women have of THEMSELVES that are the issue. Sandberg has projected her own longtime inability to set and pursue her own goals — which her late husband pointed out to her — and defined it as low expectations in the workplace. The fact is that women who act like leaders, holding themselves to that standard, soon find that people follow them. The things listed are not any different from what men do, except that they choose to do them without being asked IF they are leadership material. MOST men are not leaders either — but the ones that are, act like it! The one BIG differentiating factor that I have observed that says “NOT a leader!” however IS more common among women and does hurt their ability to be perceived as leadership quality. That warning sign is blurting out irrelevant personal information as if it has a critical place in the decision. What does that mean? Imagine an important meeting on the opposite coast — it’s put forth as an assignment for a rising star woman and she accepts enthusiastically BUT also muses aloud that she will make arrangements for child care for that week, a fact of importance to her for sure, but not an issue for the company. Uber feminists would argue that a man would not face that issue because his wife would take care of it — and they might be right! BUT in the category of “erroneous expectations” is the idea that how anyone — male or female — manages a personal life should be a concern for others. Women can be great leaders, but leaders do not ask others to put issues which do not affect them or THEIR lives into the decision making process OR the field of vision. Women are superstars at multitasking — but if they ask others to notice their juggling, THAT is not leading, and is often seen as being overwhelmed. It is women’s own expectations and nuanced behaviors (remember that little voice lift at the end of a sentence that signals a question rather than an authoritative statement? Yep — that “do you agree/approve?” voice) THEREIN lie the biggest barriers to women in leadership — not something in the system, not the old boys’ club — the fault is in our stars, that we carry ourselves as underlings and ask others to rise above our own expectations and messages.

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