Do women business leaders face unfair criticism?

Women in businessWhen Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer banned working from home there was outrage. An internal business decision was reported internationally, and many column inches were dedicated to the move. And yet, as this Huffington Post article points out, when male CEOs make similar decisions it rarely makes the news.

Some people justified the criticism levied at Mayer arguing that her decision was hypocritical, as she allegedly has a cot in her office but is preventing other working mothers from spending time with their children. Even if this is true, how many men have made equally hypocritical decisions, for example banning flexible working while finishing early on Friday themselves for a round of golf? Additionally, few people have pointed out that Mayer was recruited as CEO of Yahoo to improve the company’s profitability (which she seems to be succeeding at), not to improve working conditions for parents.

The reality is that female CEOs are not only expected to improve the company’s profitability, but also to become examples of how to juggle motherhood with demanding careers. How often are successful businesswomen asked how they juggle their home life with their work compared to men? It is almost as though society expects these women to come up with a way that will enable all women to have fulfilling careers together with a committed family life, whereas instead they are probably just muddling through the best they can like everyone else.

Perhaps the problem is that many women CEOs seem to possess superhuman capabilities that normal women (and men) cannot possibly hope to emulate. Mayer herself has admitted to frequently pulling all-nighters on top of a day at the office, especially at the beginning of her career. This is just one example, but it is not unusual to hear of female CEOs being more driven and committed than their male counterparts. On top of this they expect their employees to work just as hard, which along with the fact that the ‘masculine’ traits that are often needed to get to a leadership position are usually seen as socially unacceptable in women, and results in females being judged as difficult to work for.

It is not just how they operate within the business that top businesswomen face criticism, instead they can expect scrutiny from the clothes they wear to how much maternity leave they take. The latter is a favourite amongst the media, as too much and they are not fit to rule while too little and they are letting down working mums everywhere. This is not just relegated to business, female politicians are often blasted for the amount of maternity leave they take. When Rachida Dati was France’s Justice Minister there were countless articles criticising the fact that she took less than a week of maternity leave. Yet we rarely hear about whether or not men even take their paternity leave, and no one wonders how Barrack Obama juggles running the world’s most powerful country with being a dad.

Perhaps because they are more in the public eye than businesswomen, but female politicians seem to face more scrutiny. Together with constant belittling articles about what they wear and how they look, there is also an undercurrent of misogyny and sexism levelled against many Western female politicians. In France sexism in politics was reportedly so bad that politicians were given anti-sexism lessons, while when Australia’s Prime Minster Julia Gillard made a speech against the misogynist attacks she frequently received, the video went viral.

Although it is tempting to label the criticism female leaders face as sexist and society’s double-standards, the reasons behind the criticism are arguably more complicated. On the one hand, women in positions of power and leadership are going against what has been the norm of predominately male-rule in the West for nearly two thousand years. But, the fact that there are still so few women in these positions also means that they face more scrutiny than their male counterparts.

Women leaders are still seen as the ones breaking down barriers for other women and as such are being held up as examples for others to follow. But, hopefully as more companies invest in recruiting the best employees available and managing their talent so that both women and men can reach their full potential, female leaders will become more common and will face less scrutiny as a result.

Written by Derin Clark, a writer, editor and blogger who has many years’ experience writing on business topics.


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