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Explain It or Change It: The Lack of Women in Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
November 20, 2020

When data shows a disparity between groups, the challenge to those in power is to, “Explain it or change it.” That’s the call to action from Theresa May, former Prime Minster of the United Kingdom. Since there really is no defensible explanation for the massive underrepresentation of women in leadership, it must change.

Yet for truly effective change, we need to learn from the stories behind the disparity. This is important in government because it’s those faces, experiences and values that are absent during the creation of significant public policies that impact our communities.

Are Women Really Treated Differently?

Yes, they are. Research has clearly shown that the leadership journeys for women and men, while similar, are not the same. Women experience less support and fewer opportunities than their male peers and research has repeatedly shown it’s largely attributed to gender bias. Although there may be no difference in how women or men act, there are consequential differences in how people perceive their actions. For example, women and men may talk to leadership at similar rates, but it’s how those conversations are viewed that impacts promotion rates.

Often the Answer is Right in Front of You

Some managers and organizations have acknowledged the disparity in their leadership and have taken to heart the call to support the advancement of women. Others may be hesitant, honestly not knowing what actions would be most effective. For those who are unsure of what to do, consider that often the answer is sitting right in front of you.

Instead of second-guessing, turn to the women leaders in your organization and ask them directly what has been most useful in their career progression. While each women’s experience is unique, listening and learning from their voices, their perspectives and their experiences can provide valuable insights into what has worked and where additional support is needed.

Answers from the Women of Utah

A recent study asked women leaders from varying levels of government in the state of Utah to share which strategies they felt were most effective in supporting their career advancement (for a summary of the results, see Utah Women & Leadership Project). One of the key findings was the importance of professional development and training opportunities. Of the leadership programs identified, there was only one program mentioned designed specifically for women in government.

Traditionally, leadership training is developed using the workplace experiences of men as the norm. Popular leadership development courses frequently validate and reinforce a man’s progression experience, effectively ignoring and minimizing the additional challenges women face in their careers. These trainings rarely include candid conversations about the cumulative impact that micro-aggressions and bias have on the career progression of women, particularly women of color.

Why Women Deserve a Customized Approach

The value of women-specific leadership development training comes from the opportunity to openly acknowledge the biases that women experience in their career progression, which men do not experience. In the Utah research referenced above, participants wanted more women-focused training to provide a safe place for them to share and process their experiences and to network with other women leaders. By candidly discussing their experiences, they felt they would no longer be, “Just a stifled voice.” Those who had participated in a women-specific program appreciated learning how to become a more effective leader while navigating bias, discrimination, and micro-aggressions.

Denial of Gender Inequity

Unfortunately, many in leadership are in denial and believe that government workplaces are meritocracies and that all employees are treated the way same. That just isn’t the case. Inclusion happens, or doesn’t happen, in a dozen different ways every day. It’s embedded in what behaviors are ignored or endorsed and it’s apparent in the comments or jokes that discriminate and marginalize women. As Michelle King noted in a Harvard Business Review article (May 19, 2020), those in power, “Need to stop denying the reality for women and become aware of all the ways they enable inequality to unfold in their teams.”

3 Steps to Action

If you genuinely want to support the women with whom you work, here are three steps to help you get started:

  1. First: Be curious! If you don’t have equal representation in your leadership roles, then be willing to ask why. Do the difficult work of challenging the status quo and taking a critical look at your work culture to identify ways to improve.
  2. Then: Become educated! Ask women leaders in your organization, particularly women leaders of color, what efforts have helped them and what barriers still need to be addressed. Be aware that this step may require difficult conversations of how current leadership may be creating or supporting barriers.
  1. Finally: Take action! Use the research that’s been noted above as a starting point to better understand the challenges women face and to learn of possible strategies that can support women advancing in your organization.

Progress will only happen once we acknowledge where we are and take intentional action to improve the diversity of our leadership ranks. As Theresa May stated, “If you can’t explain it, then it’s time to change it.”


Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding executive leadership and management positions. She is currently a Scholar-in-Residence with the Utah Women and Leadership Project and owner of Townsend Consulting, providing leadership coaching and organizational consulting services. She can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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