Women leaders still face barriers to business success

  • 26 April 2018
  • CPD Resource | Career Development | Managing People | Leadership & Strategy | CPD | Centre of Excellence Research

Professor Sharon Mavin, Director of Newcastle University Business School, is leading an innovative research project which highlights invisible-visible challenges faced by women business leaders.

Professor Mavin is the lead researcher behind the study, which explores how women leaders are perceived by their peers, other women and how they are characterised by the media. It provides deeper understanding of why there are so few women in top leadership roles.

In her research, Professor Mavin argues that there is a preoccupation with how women leaders look, which takes the focus away from their leadership abilities and aptitudes in the corporate and organisational world. She has developed a theoretical tool called ‘Abject Appearance’ to illustrate the tactics women leaders deploy to manage the situation as they construct their leader identity in a traditionally men-dominated environment.

More than 80 women from a variety of UK-based organisations were interviewed: executive directors or non-executive directors in FTSE 100 or FTSE 250 companies, and elite leaders named in an annual UK regional newspaper supplement that profiled the top 250 influential leaders. Interviews focused on women’s progression into top leadership roles and covered a range of issues, such as their leadership ambitions, competition and cooperation with their peers, and friendships at work.

A key finding from the study is that women in top leader positions felt they were often judged more on their appearance than their competence as business leaders. This may seem insignificant and inconsequential, but it has serious ramifications in how women leaders are normalised (or not) in our society.

Professor Mavin says: “Women told us how distracting this is. Women have to be consciously aware of how they look at all times. The situation is sexist because the same level of continual judgement doesn’t apply to men and should be addressed. We are conditioned and socialised that it’s normal to ‘see’ men in positions of power. Gendering women’s appearance is one way of ‘seeing’ women as women – rather than as powerful leaders.

“Also, it’s easier for women to get their dress ‘wrong’. A suit is the professional norm for a man but if a woman wears a similar style, she can be seen as encroaching on masculine territory.

“The situation is exacerbated by the way in which women are portrayed in the media. Some women leaders won’t engage with a journalist if they are questioned about their clothes or family. They don’t want the media messages to be focused on these issues; they are leaders in significant responsible positions, delivering incredible work and want to talk about pertinent business issues – not where they bought their clothes or shoes.”

The study highlights two main strategies that women deploy for dealing with the situation. The first strategy is to shift the focus away from the body and appearance. Some women do this by ‘calling out’ sexism directly, so that the focus is on competence, ability and intellect rather than appearance. Others refuse to engage with media unless there are agreed boundaries around a focus of the business and their organisation.

The second strategy is to keep the focus on appearance but look and dress ‘professionally’.  Even this is a difficult balance; anything that reveals ‘too much’ draws attention to the body, while conservative suits and haircuts – such as a Hilary Clinton-style bob and pant suit – are acceptable but get commented on as being boring.

Professor Mavin continues: “Women who adopt this strategy aim to neutralise any discussion about appearance by looking professional ‘enough’ to be taken seriously. Wearing a garish dress, having an unusual haircut or being overweight is viewed as automatically attracting attention for the wrong reasons and undermining women’s credibility for top leader roles.

“The research shows that sexism is still alive and well in the corporate and organisational world – because women don’t wear a suit, shirt and tie. It is time for this gendering through appearance (by men and women) – to stop. It should be called out. If racism isn’t acceptable in football, why does sexism continue in business?

“The study aims to bring this sexism to the surface to encourage business leaders and organisations to consider the impact of, and crack down on, appearance sexism in the workplace. It may also help to effect a change in government policy so that sexist reporting and imagery in the media is banned.”

Professor Mavin recently presented findings from the study to the North East Dynamo Executive Women Leaders in IT programme and has held discussions with key policymakers and the Government Equalities Office about the way in which women business leaders are perceived and portrayed.

Findings from the research project have informed two Government Equalities Office reports on body image and confidence, while she has also been working with colleagues across UK universities on a three-year project, funded by the ESRC, to challenge gender-based misrepresentations of women business leaders and professionals in the media.

As part of this Professor Mavin was involved in a round-table meeting of journalists, academics and business leaders in the House of Commons, where conversations focused on current representations of women in the media, and the challenges and changes needed to portray women in less gendered ways. 

Professor Mavin, who has been nominated for a Northern Power Women Award 2018, says: “Inaccurate and gendered media portrayals of women are a wider societal issue, not just a problem in business. These portrayals reinforce stereotypes of how a woman should look and behave and undermine women’s leadership when they don’t live up to perceived gendered norms. 

“There are wider societal issues with the media’s obsession with women’s bodies and the Government Equalities Office is working to address these. There is evidence to show the negative impact for young women and girls, who assess themselves against media images of how they ‘should’ look; for example, against how celebrities are portrayed. This can lead to lack of self-confidence, and more serious problems including eating disorders or drug and alcohol abuse. 

“The impact of the focus on women leaders’ bodies and appearance should not be underestimated – it’s one way of making sure women leaders are still out of place and not normal. This study provides a starting point for challenging this sexism and furthering research that will help to address these vital issues in society.” 

Professor Sharon Mavin
Director, Newcastle University Business School