At a time when the world needs strong leadership, it’s all hands on deck. Yet data shows that women continue to be an underleveraged resource. In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, will explore the intersection of career, relationships, and gender and the impact on families, organizations, and society.
When I was little, I thought doctors were boys and nurses were girls. As you might suspect, I had a storybook that portrayed the world that way. I also thought dogs were boys and cats were girls, though the source of that idea is harder to pinpoint. While the first notion sounds more reasonable than the second, in reality they are equally absurd. Jobs don’t have genders.
When you look across history, many jobs that are currently associated with one gender over another were reversed. On my recent trip to Jamestown, Virginia, the first English settlement in the Americas, I learned that early settlers (primarily men) kept the town running by specializing in work like baking, sewing, and cooking. There was no men’s work or women’s work. In fact, male settlers requested that their wives be landowners and have their own allotments, because “...in a new plantation it is not known whether man or woman be the more necessary.” Conditions were harsh, provisions were scarce, and survival was more important than gender roles.
The popular 2016 film Hidden Figures portrays the true story of human computers at NASA, who, with the introduction of the enormous mainframe computer, adapted and became computer coders. These women were part of a new field, computer science, where there was room and opportunity for women to be leaders until 1984 when their representation dropped precipitously. Why? The advent of personal home computers supplied a steady marketing message that computers are for boys—a narrative subscribed to and perpetuated by people like the former Google engineer who wrote an anti-diversity memo questioning women’s suitability for jobs in tech.
Despite jobs being gender fluid throughout history, we are shaped by our current environment and expectations. In a Korn Ferry business simulation that tests executives’ readiness for promotion, candidates are asked to meet with a business unit president to discuss the health of a business within a fictitious company. The business president role of “Chris” is always played by a trained assessor who knows the ins and outs of the challenges facing this business and is prepared to discuss strategy and financials in detail. On multiple occasions, candidates refer to “Chris” as a “he” even when the role was played by a woman, and in some cases, even when the woman is sitting across the table providing feedback in a debrief. These candidates expected the business president to be a man, and when she wasn’t, they converted her.
Women limit their thinking in similar ways. When girls don’t see themselves represented among the 45 US presidents, is it any wonder that they might think it’s not legal for a woman to be president? When women have so few role models to look to among the ranks of CEOs, is it any wonder that when asked about their career aspirations, 65% of women CEOs told us that they never saw themselves as CEO until someone told them they had potential? And yet, this finding from our "Women CEOs Speak" study is one that astounds interviewers – how could these women not see themselves as possible future CEOs?
Specific leadership and job competencies are developed by a person’s experiences. To the extent that experiences are limited or targeted for men versus women or vice versa, competencies between genders may differ. But Korn Ferry’s research suggests that there is no basis for predetermined differences in potential based on gender. In my mind, it goes back to our self-imposed limitations of what constitutes “women’s work” or “men’s work” based on social and cultural expectations that change over time. If gender doesn’t matter, there is one litmus test to determine whether a job is for a man or a woman: Does the person perform the job with their reproductive organs? If the answer is no, the job is for both men and women.