One evening during my sophomore year of high school, I had a conversation with a close girlfriend about women in leadership. We didn’t always agree about all things feminism, but I wanted to try and talk it out — I wanted to understand each other. But I’ll never forget the moment when I realized, like a punch to the gut, that our conversation was going nowhere.
She looked me dead in the eyes and said, calmly, confidently: “I just don’t think women were made to do certain things, Heather. Like, a woman was not made to be a CEO.”
A woman was not made to be a CEO.
I was stunned. I could barely speak. Naive as I was at that time, this was my first heavy dose of such an extreme, flippant perspective — and I didn’t know how to handle it. So I didn’t. We just agreed to disagree, and politely continued on our way.
How could I argue with a close friend about something so personal to me? How could I tell her that, hey, just because you don’t feel like you can be a leader doesn’t mean no woman can!? How could I tell her that, as a girl who’d found myself inadvertently leading all through grade school and up, that her ‘perspective’ felt like a slap in the face to my very existence?
Well, I suppose I could have said those things. But I was sixteen. I didn’t have the words then.
What’s strikes me as particularly tragic, though, is not what her words meant to me — because I learned she was wrong. I found encouragement and wisdom as I grew; I found capability as a leader and continue to (I hope) improve. The true tragedy is what those words meant to her. She was defining her own possibilities in a tiny, cramped little box, and I don’t know if she ever escaped. I don’t know if she ever changed her perspective.
A few months back, an engineer at Google released a memo detailing why he believes women are inherently less skilled in areas like leadership, and I heard my sixteen-year-old girlfriend’s words echoing in every line. But I’m not sixteen anymore. Thankfully, today I can read that memo and, like many others, scoff and rage at the thought — but I don’t for a second actually believe it.
What worries me is how many people out there do.
How many women read those headlines and thought, even quietly, even just to themselves, “Well, maybe he’s got a point?” How many men or women felt justified in the unsubstantiated suspicion they’d always held? How many people felt more confident in saying those things out loud, with a headline, with a megaphone?
The difference for me is this: now I have the words to respond. And before you allow this idea that ‘women just weren’t made to be leaders’ get inceptioned into your subconscious by Leo DiCaprio’s MRA alter-ego, please review the following facts.
Companies with Women Leaders Are More Profitable. We often hear the argument for gender parity based on fairness, but that argument means nothing to anyone out there who thinks women might not be built for the job. Here’s a better point: a massive study of over twenty thousand companies in ninety-one countries showed that having at least 30% of women in C-suite leadership positions adds 6% to your net profit margin. Women can lead, and their leadership is actually good for business. This isn’t the only study to find that, either; another enormous study found that the most profitable companies also had higher percentages of women in leadership roles. The correlation is not a coincidence.
Women Leaders Are Rated Higher by Their Employees. In a study of over seven thousand leaders, the Harvard Business Review found that women were consistently rated higher as leaders overall than their male counterparts. The higher ranking the leadership position, the greater that difference grew. What’s more, when HBR broke down the ratings into the sixteen most important qualities for leaders, men were only rated higher than women in one category; women were rated higher in a full twelve, and three were so close the difference was negligible. The idea that women are less capable when it comes to leading just doesn’t hold up when their peers, bosses, and direct reports consistently rate them otherwise.
Women In Congress Do More For Their Districts. A study by the American Journal of Political Science found that, on average, women in congress sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than their male counterparts, and significantly that “congresswomen secure roughly 9% more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen.” Women get more money for their districts than their male counterparts, and yet still only 19% of those seats are held by women.
These many studies refute the idea that women are somehow less capable leaders. Women are just as capable of leading as men, and in many cases more so. Although I would argue that, just as men are not fundamentally better than women, women are not fundamentally better than men — they are both equally capable. As the AJPS study pointed out, because of gender discrimination, the women who do rise to leadership roles have been forced to prove themselves many times over, which mean those who succeed have to be inherently more skilled just to get on equal footing with their male counterparts. So yes, of course the women in these studies are leading with more prowess than men. What this really means is that all humans have the potential to lead; women have just been barred from doing so. You have the potential to run a business, run for congress, lead an organization. Your skills in that arena are not determined by your gender, and the sooner we can embrace and understand that truth, the sooner we can walk towards a better world.
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