As if the dismal count of women leaders wasn't bad enough, it appears that what they are valued for is also drowned in stereotypes. Let's examine both with an example, the numbers and nature of women held up as examples of leadership. Harvard Business School caters to approximately 80% of the business cases studied across the world. Across its 53 best-selling case studies over five years, only seven feature women protagonists (of which two are actually men with names changed to add to the gender mix). Sadly, even this low percentage (13%) beats the real-world figure, despite the rise in the number of women CEOs in 2017 from 21 to 32 amongst the Fortune 500 companies (i.e. 6%).
An INSEAD graduate, Lesley Symons, decided to delve deeper and founded an organisation The Case for Women, which conducts detailed research into the representation of women in business school papers and case studies. To begin with, in the women-led Harvard case studies mentioned above, Symons discovered that these seven women were limited to working in 'pink' industries: food, family, furniture and fashion, that are stereotypically associated with women leaders. She performed the 'Bechdel test' on these case studies (calling it the 'Symons test') and found that only three out of these seven women in leadership positions were actually portrayed as speaking to other women 'about' the business. She also notes that their descriptions are much less in-depth than the important men within the same case study and that they are never accorded any importance in the world portrayed in the case study.
Men take recourse to the narrative of being the breadwinner of the house, hence alleviating any guilt about their inability to help out at home
Apart from their limitation within the 'pink industries', the one glaring aspect about women leaders highlighted in business case studies is how they deal with 'work-life-balance'. Men in leadership positions do not have to be concerned about the home while women leaders must always balance their professional lives with the personal, especially if they have children. Anecdotally, too, whether it is in conferences or celebrated interviews with successful women, there is almost always airtime dedicated to how they cope with work and home, together. Many women leaders offer sage advice on the importance of marrying the right person and having supportive in-laws as critical factors for getting ahead in the workplace!
Talking about 'the right partner', what is the expectation from men? There are studies to indicate that men take recourse to the narrative of being the breadwinner of the house, hence alleviating any guilt about their inability to help out at home. According to a survey by the Working Mother Research Institute, 79% of working mothers are responsible for doing the laundry, and mothers are twice as fathers likely to handle the cooking. The results of this survey also say that working fathers tend to take over the outdoor chores, but working mothers handle most of the childcare.
It is clear that women have to simultaneously deal with the pressure at work, the unfair expectations on them to outperform their peers to prove that they are 'serious' about and committed to their work, as well as the guilt and judgment that comes with being a working mother, from family members and colleagues, if they do not spend time at home. Women who manage both home and work well are idolised as the superwomen of our generation.
But is this a fair expectation?
Is this a fair expectation only of women? While women are beginning to assume leadership positions, with growing representation in areas such as automobiles and defence, we need to create change beyond the professional universe. Conversations at home must change. Whether it is about men wanting to parent more or share domestic chores in greater measure, or women wanting to step out more, these equality-oriented steps have to become more visible and loud. And if we truly want to break stereotypes, work-life-balance must matter to both, equally.
Not only are we not providing enough women role models, but even the ones that exist bear the burden of every existing gender stereotype out there. This can never lead to a balanced 'home' or 'professional space'. If even hypothetical situations (business case studies) fail to show equality in its true sense of the word, how do we influence and change the direction of young minds who will shape the future of the professional world sustainably?
Now that bed-time stories are becoming gender-transformative, isn't it time for business schools to take a cue?
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