Leaders must avoid stereotypes and references to merit when talking about gender equality

Many CEOs speak passionately about advancing women at work, but their language is often counterproductive, says Elisabeth Kelan

Progress towards gender equality has stalled. The conventional wisdom around this topic is that women are implicitly or explicitly responsible for achieving this by developing their capabilities, skills and leadership; the onus for achieving gender equality is on women. 

But this ignores that leaders have an important role to play as change agents for gender equality. Many of those leaders – both women and men – have in fact signalled their support for gender equality. They increasingly talk the talk. However, does this talk actually inspire others to change their practices?

In my research I have interviewed global CEOs who have publicly supported gender equality. I was interested in how they talk about gender equality and how they show their support for creating this. While all CEOs talked passionately about gender equality and why they are committed to achieving it, they used a rather limited understanding of gender. This limited understanding hinders rather than supports progress. 

Leaders commonly use two arguments to suggest that gender equality is important. CEOs try hard to make the business case for women at work. This commonly means CEOs referring to the ‘special skills’ women bring to the workplace. For instance, women might be seen as more in touch with their emotions, which in turn is beneficial for creating consensus in teams. Leaders suggest these ‘innately female’ skills put women at an advantage – a female advantage. The problem with this is it risks confirming rather than challenging stereotypes. Academic research calls this ‘essentialising’ gender – a phenomenon which presumes women and men are fixed entities with specific skills. It presses women into pre-established patterns.

When leaders use the female advantage argument, they often simultaneously stress that their organisations operate based on the merit principle: the best person for the job is hired and promoted. This means leaders do not automatically advance women but that women have to compete to show they are the best person. However, merit is far from an objective category and often lies in the eye of the beholder. Merit is socially constructed. Research has shown that if men and women show identical skills, they are evaluated differently. For example, if women are assertive, they are often seen as aggressive; so a man and a woman showing assertiveness are likely to be evaluated differently. 

This suggests that while leaders have good intentions and might be committed to gender equality, their language is often counterproductive. It sees men and women as fixed entities with specific skills or ignores that merit might be judged differently in women and men. Leaders are therefore not agents of change, but rather inadvertently agents of continuity. 

How can that be changed? Leaders need to develop a better understanding of biases and privileges in the workplace. While many organisations conduct unconscious bias awareness training and their diversity and inclusion professionals talk extensively about privilege, that has not hit home with most senior leaders. They continue to default to an understanding of gender that is out of sync with what academics and practitioners in the field of diversity and inclusion see as important. 

It is therefore not enough for leaders to voice their support for gender equality – they also need to do this in a way that is conducive to bringing about change in organisations. Leaders need to rethink how they can talk about gender equality so they can express themselves in an authentic way that is, crucially, not perpetuating traditional concepts of gender.

Elisabeth Kelan is professor of leadership and organisation and Leverhulme Trust major research fellow at Essex Business School