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Are your leadership competencies gender biased?

Posted by Meg Bear on June 25, 2010


After a recent FWE&E event, I took a moment to meet Deborah Campbell from Catalyst.org and I’m so glad that I did.

She mentioned a study they did of Talent Management systems and how they were gender biased.  To be candid about it, I was a little shocked at the idea.

I can seriously think of few functions more interested in equality, than Talent.

So I took a look at the report myself, and I realized how this could happen, it’s really similar to my own gender bias.  The truth is that, in most organizations, the idea of leadership has a strong masculine undertone.

This comes more from ethnocentrism than from malice.

Today’s reality is, that most senior leaders are men, and when they define the values that feel important to leadership they can’t help but describe themselves.

Those leadership values then shape the measurement of talent (typically through ratings of performance and potential) and those biases lead to the logical end result, a very small population of women senior leaders.

If you find yourself thinking that your pipeline of women leaders feels underrepresented, consider these two suggestions

  • Review your leadership competencies to make sure that stereotypically male attributes do not dominate (e.g.,  action oriented, results driven) and that important  stereotypically female attributes are not excluded (e.g., collaborative and visionary).
  • Considering doing Talent Reviews with a broader population of the workforce, so that additional hidden talent can be identified earlier for leadership grooming.

I strongly recommend that you give this report a read if you are interested in building a larger and more diverse pipeline to your leadership succession plans.

I’d also like to give my thanks to the Catalyst organization who are doing an amazing job to educate us all.

4 Responses to “Are your leadership competencies gender biased?”

  1. Sorry it took a while to comment, but I agree that this bias is likely to exist. The trick is which is the cause; are these really inherent to gender, or is it that since one gender has dominated the positions of power in business for so long and certain behaviors have been encouraged, that the two factors are seen as inherently connected? Since we’ve seen evidence that the genders do seem to have some behavioral differences, it is easy to connect the dots and say one leads to the other. In the end, for all intents and purposes, the bias exists and that leads to a larger issue.

    I also think it’s very likely that there are a bunch of biases that have developed around business and talent management. Much of it is the result of the “Halo Effect”, which our colleague David Kottcamp brought to our attention a while ago. This is the notion that we tend to attribute success to observable characteristics of successful companies without taking into enough account whether those same characteristics were present in unsuccessful companies as well. So we see certain talent management practices in successful companies, copy them, and meanwhile, the same gender continues to exhibit those characteristics they’ve been trained and selected for in that context, and the cycle is perpetuated. In addition, things that aren’t being practiced in the successful companies are discounted as not important or relevant.

    So what’s being missed? This is where the simple notion of diversity enters into the picture. The characteristics that seemed to work in the past are beginning to show signs of wearing thin and not being able to adapt to changing circumstances. These include such things as: classic command and control organizational structure, top-down only strategy formulation, low incentives to collaborate, etc. Here is where, as you say, some new ideas and perspectives can be mixed in, tested, and the overall result should benefit both business and worker. A good many of them could end up being proposed and supported by women.

  2. […] Talent Management systems are gender-biased and talk about what to do about it. Meg Bear presents Are your leadership competencies gender biased? posted at […]

  3. […] Talent Management systems are gender-biased and talk about what to do about it. Meg Bear presents Are your leadership competencies gender biased? posted at […]

  4. […] Talent Management systems are gender-biased and talk about what to do about it. Meg Bear presents Are your leadership competencies gender biased? posted at […]

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