Persistent authority gap necessitates “rewiring” of society

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Still, only one in five board members and one in 20 CEOs in the Netherlands are women. Despite decades of initiatives, laws, and regulations, real top positions for women remain out of reach. By way of example, the new Dutch law to increase the representation of women in decision-making in companies is helpful, particularly through the new reporting requirements to the Dutch SER (Social and Economic Council) that promote greater transparency and better enforcement. However, it is not sufficient to effectively combat the root causes of this underrepresentation, which manifests itself in the authority gap. This can only be achieved through a gender-inclusive “rewiring” of all levels and institutions of our society, within both public and private organizations as well as at the individual level.

The path to the top is strewn with hurdles for women over which they have no control, because gender stereotypes, biases, stigmatization, and traditional gender expectations are the root causes. The selection and promotion policies for leadership positions are often a battleground for women who aspire to them. This is because the standard for male leadership remains dominant, resulting in phenomena such as the glass ceiling, sticky floor, glass cliff, and leadership labyrinth. The “old boys network” continues to hold sway over appointments, and women who apply for leadership positions continue to be ignored or are told, for example, “You shouldn’t want that, because it takes a lot of time.”

The representation of top women in the media is another major concern. Headlines like “The new boss of the world’s largest lender always has an opinion, and a clear one as well” in the recent appointment of the CEO of the European Investment Bank (EIB), Nadia Calviño, are examples of imagery that contributes to perpetuating traditional role patterns and perceptions. This forces women to remain within narrowly defined boundaries. This not only limits their individual freedom but also influences the public perception of gender equality and the leadership qualities of women. Moreover, the widespread online dissemination of hatred and violence against women in high positions also contributes to the negative portrayal.

These are just a few of the many threads in the complex fabric of our society that make gender inequality and the exclusion of women a structural and institutional problem, perpetuating this at all levels. The RE-WIRING research reveals that most solutions and tools to increase the number of women in top positions boil down to “fixing women,” such as training, mentoring, and coaching women. These fall short because they are mainly aimed at ensuring that women can (better) function within organizations, systems, and cultures built by and for men. Thus, they reaffirm inequality and do not address the root causes and sources of the problem inherent within those institutions themselves.

This state of affairs urgently requires a fundamental rethinking and “rewiring” of our society and institutions with the aim of combating the gender stereotype foundations and structures that perpetuate structural inequality and exclusion. The metaphor of the birdcage symbolizes this; its many threads restrict women in their personal development and participation in society, keeping them in place . A thorough revision of all those threads simultaneously is necessary, involving both existing institutional frameworks, their practical implementation, and the symbolical world.

Organizations must dare to reflect on themselves and examine and acknowledge where (often unintended) deep-rooted biases and systematic inequalities continue to hinder women, both within their institutional frameworks and corporate culture and practice, and the narratives and images they deploy. They must also actively work to investigate which gender gaps exist within their systems, such as in salary structures , and tailor their actions accordingly.

The starting point is the establishment of a gender-inclusive (SDG5) mission and concrete values and goals, actively involving all employees (“bottom-up” and holistically). From this jointly developed and embraced mission and values, requirements arise regarding the gender composition of selection and appointment committees, the transparency of those procedures, and the collective and bottom-up discussion of the ideal leadership profile and selection criteria. Additionally, a way forward is also to scrutinize labor and care arrangements for their possible, often unintended, gender biases towards both women and men.

Specifically, the selection and promotion policies for leadership positions must be fundamentally revised to end the prevailing culture of exclusivity and exclusion. The current “opt-in” procedures for leadership selection, where candidates must raise their hands to participate, hinder the participation of women and thus perpetuate gender inequality. Women simply raise their hands less often when they are qualified, even when they are more qualified than their male counterparts. Offering assertiveness training (“bluffing courses”) and coaching to women to change this behavior does not address the fundamental causes.

Therefore, companies should develop “opt-out” procedures, where all qualified candidates automatically participate and where they must explicitly indicate (“opt-out”) if they do not want to. This way, gender differences are respected and appreciated, and women are not forced to behave differently than they want to in order to qualify for the selection process. Negative reactions from the environment to women’s ambition to take on a leadership role are also less likely. Recent research shows that with an “opt-out” approach, the talent pool for

top positions is significantly expanded with women. This positively contributes to a different interpretation and the quality of leadership and to society.

Finally, gender inclusivity as a corporate mission and value should be incorporated into the training, coaching, and mentoring programs of both men and women in the organization. By setting collective goals, such as transforming the organizational culture into an inclusive one, rather than focusing on individual goals, these instruments can contribute to the structural transformation of the organization.

A gender-inclusive rewiring of society requires a collective willingness and responsibility of all stakeholders involved to take the necessary actions in word, deed, and image to ‘repair our institutions’. Only then can we create a society and institutions in which women are truly free to forge their own path and remain themselves, free from obstacles imposed by the outside world based on gender stereotypes, biases, and expectations.

Linda Senden (Utrecht University) and Mirella Visser (Centre for Inclusive Leadership)