Four myths that are holding back women leaders


Four myths that are holding back women leaders

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Prof. Neharika Vohra


In an attempt to diversify boards of companies, the Companies Act of India stipulates that there has to be at least one woman director on all listed companies and adds that a hefty fine will be levied for non-compliance. Large numbers of companies in India are resigned to paying fines because they are not able to find enough women to occupy these positions. Companies have been battling with the question: Where are the women leaders?

Lean In, a book by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., created quite a furore in managerial and academic circles. Sandberg argued that women need to sit more often in the driver’s seat when it comes to their careers. Some men and women swear by what Sandberg said and others say women who are already overburdened by multiple roles are the ones being asked to work harder and take more initiative. Whichever way you may argue, the reality remains that women are missing in senior and leadership roles in organizations.

In a recent study on diversity and inclusion in Indian organizations that I was part of, we found that all the 21 organizations (the sample was diverse with respect to size, ownership pattens and industry) had made increasing gender diversity a focus in the last three or four years. Every organization we included argued that more women at all levels make good business sense. Yet, several beliefs about women in the minds of men and women in the society and workforce come in the way of their progress and their ability to perform to their best in their organizations.

I will list some of the salient beliefs I have uncovered in the course of my research and work with leaders in organizations at all levels. I think readers can evaluate for themselves how true or false the beliefs are and recognize the shaping power of such beliefs and the possibility of revising some of them.

Belief 1: Women do not know how to handle power.

I have heard both men and women articulate this belief in many ways. For example, it is often said women bosses are more likely to be authoritarian, and that women do not get along with other women. Such statements, often backed with evidence, add to the general belief that women are particularly unable to handle power.

However, I am sure you will agree that Lord Acton, when he said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, did not mean only women. Scholars of power will tell you for sure that leaning to handle power is a skill that has to be consciously practised. Both men and women need to be mindful of wielding power. However, the small number of women in the workforce leads people to have illusory correlations about women’s skills or handling or mishandling of power.

Belief 2: Men and women believe that women are not so interested in taking stressful roles and that they are emotional beings and cannot handle difficult situations/stress.

The inherent assumption is that men are stronger and thus they are more suited, prepared and raring to take challenges and stress. Thus, women tell themselves that they are better off doing meaningful roles—why add to stress by being in a leadership position? Men around them say this to the women in their lives and thus assume the same of the women in their organizations and both groups collude to create a reality where women are not naturally offered leadership positions.

Even though there is no clear-cut evidence to show that women are less able to handle their emotions as compared to men, the belief seems to shape the behaviour of both men and women in the workplace.

Belief 3: It is believed by both men and women that women are the ones who can take better care of family responsibilities.

No doubt women are the ones who give birth to babies. That is a physical reality. Childbirth and survival care for the newbon is at most 18 to 24 months of a slowdown period that happens in the early part of a woman’s career.

Work-life balance comprises not only of child care. It is the overall responsibility of running the family and keeping it together. Psychologically, there is no inherent reality that women can take better care of elders, relationships among family members, children’s schooling and growing pains. If both men and women start believing that keeping the family together is a joint responsibility and any compromises on the career front can be made by either, the reality we see in society and the workplace may be different.

Belief 4: Good women do what is sanctioned by the family.

Women are attuned to doing things and taking decisions seen as permissible and/or meet the approval of the extenal world very early in their lives. Older men, women who have intenalized the societal patriarchy, and immediate family members will often give messages that either validate or invalidate the actions of a woman.

Often, women are given subtle messages about who is a good woman. The stereotype includes someone who sacrifices for her family, who does not seek her own identity and who obeys the norms of the social context.

Many women feel that a favour is being accorded to them if and when they are supported for stepping out of the house, doing something for themselves. Conversely, for those women who choose to give substantial time and energy to their work, there is a nagging guilt of not being a good wife or daughter or mother. Workplace accomplishments pale in comparison to what the woman might be praised for in the family.

In most cases, women find it very difficult to self-authorize themselves. Many times, they look over their shoulder and wait to get a nod. In many cases, the nod-giver is intenalized and in several others, it is real.

This belief allows women to easily step back in the face of challenges, opportunities and excitement in the workplace because they believe they will not be validated for accepting such responsibilities by the people who matter around them.

I have listed the four most powerful beliefs that shape women’s acceptance of leadership in the workplace and men’s stances of providing opportunities and then relating to women leaders. The list is by no means exhaustive.

I believe that organizations are a slice of society and assumptions and beliefs held in the larger social context play a role in the way members of an organization behave towards each other and respond to problems faced by them.

Thus, if we wish to see changes in how our organizations look in terms of sex composition, we need to start examining and challenging our beliefs as they play out in the larger society. It may be a slow process, but it is surer way of bringing in change in the length and breadth of the organization and in the boardroom.


Professor Neharika Vohra is a faculty member in organisational behaviour at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. She holds two postgraduate degrees and is a first-rank holder in graduation and postgraduation in psychology. She also holds a PhD in social psychology from the University of Manitoba, Canada.

This article presents the author’s personal views and should not be construed to represent the institute’s position on the subject.


First published in 'View from IIMA' column in Mint.