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Capable but held to higher standards: Why the glass ceiling still exists

In 2015, almost fifty years after the women’s liberation movement took place in the United States, the question of whether gender equality exists is still constantly posed despite the enactment of equal rights legislation in many countries.

Pew Research Center, an American independent research organization, recently released a poll on ‘Women and Leadership’. The findings were interesting --- while the American public generally felt women were equally capable as leaders, women were held to a higher standard than men and these gender stereotypes will continue to prevent true equality.


The majority in Pew’s survey did not find a difference between male and female leaders on leadership traits such as intelligence, innovation, ambition, and decisiveness.

While men were perceived to be stronger at risk-taking and negotiating profitable deals, women were seen by the majority as being more compassionate and organized.

Female business leaders were also generally seen as better at compromising, being honest and ethical, mentoring, and providing fair pay than their male counterparts.


Women outnumbering men in universities worldwide for both undergraduate and post-grad studies has led to the increase of women in managerial and professional occupations, with females occupying more than half these roles in the U.S.

Despite these strides, the glass ceiling is still pervasive at the Chief-level, with women comprising only 5% of CEOs and 17% of board members in America’s Fortune 500 companies.

It is perhaps these statistics that explain why the majority of respondents say it’s easier for men to be appointed to top executive roles.

So what exactly is holding women back from these positions if they are equally capable?

It is not the perception that women are not “tough enough” or that they don’t make good managers, with less than 10% of respondents citing these reasons.

Nor is it primarily family responsibilities or the lack of connections, although a quarter of Americans did see these as factors preventing women from reaching the highest corporate ranks.

According to 43% of the respondents, double standards and gender stereotypes are the most significant barriers to women’s progress to the executive echelons since women were held to a higher standard and companies were simply “not ready to hire women leaders”.


Theoretically, then, women are deemed as capable as men. However, they have to do more to prove themselves to surmount the expectation that men are more naturally suited to leadership positions.

This double standard does not only mean that women must jump over higher hurdles to be considered competent, but also that there are different rules for women.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and author of the best-selling book Lean In, described this perfectly in her New York Times essay “Speaking while Female”. She and co-author Adam Grant wrote about how in meetings, the female employee is either “barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says…the same thing, heads nod in appreciation... As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”

This conundrum of either being too aggressive or not assertive enough is just one of the many impediments faced by women, further compounding gender stereotypes.


Despite our best intentions to be open-minded, we all hold some sort of preconceived notion about others. We need to be aware of these biases and actively take steps to make decisions without these stereotypes dictating how we behave.

Women also need more female mentors to help guide them through the trials and tribulations of the corporate world. [see link] Let’s update the “old boys’ network” with the inclusion of an “old girls’ network” popularised by Sandberg’s Lean In Circles.

UAE professional women can create their own wasta through joining groups such as Ellevate, International Women’s Business Group, and Heels and Deals, a women’s entrepreneurship group.

In addition, since corporations can’t always be relied upon to do the right thing, governments need to introduce regulations such as the mandatory appointment of female board members for UAE government agencies to encourage the desired behaviour.


How can we ‘Make It Happen’ and eliminate the need for women to perform to higher standards because of outdated expectations?

It could be taking small steps such as educators and parents using the “she” pronoun to describe astronauts or other traditionally male occupations to let gender equality penetrate into the youth subconscious.

Or it could be a call to action to leaders in the business community to make a concerted effort to hire and promote women on their own merit without their need to battle the clutches of historical stereotypes.

Isn’t it finally time to let half the world’s population experience true equality? Let’s make it happen.

This article was originally published in 2015 on Gulf Business and remains as relevant today in 2019.


Jeanette Teh is an ICF Certified Transformation Coach. A former lawyer, Assistant Professor, and corporate trainer, she loves applying her background in Psychology, DISC behaviour styles, MBA, and Innovation to help people achieve their highest potential.

Jeanette is a Bessern Advisor and Coach


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