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In a June 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman remind readers that the persistently low rate of representation by women in senior corporate positions makes no sense when it comes to actual leadership abilities and perceived competency. In fact, research conducted by Zenger and Folkman indicates that women consistently score higher than men on most measures of leadership competency and effectiveness.

Zenger and Folkman have twice analyzed databases of 360-degree reviews of leadership effectiveness, the first time in 2012 and then again recently. In both cases they found that, while the differences between men and women were “not huge,” to a statistically significant degree women were “perceived just as — if not more — competent as their male counterparts.” And yet, the authors point out, only 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs are women.

As the authors also note, it is likely that women continue to occupy a very small portion of the most senior levels of corporate leadership due to historical biases (both conscious and unconscious), and inaccurate theories regarding whether women actually want to reach the top. Zenger and Folkman conclude – based on their research and other data – that the reason women are not advancing to top corporate positions has more to do with lack of opportunity than lack of competence or ambition.

Among the leadership skills on which women scored higher than men were “taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty.” In fact, the authors write, “they were thought to be more effective in 84% of the competencies that we most frequently measure.” The surveys showed that men were rated as being better in two areas: “develops strategic perspective” and “technical or professional expertise.”

I encourage you to read the HBR article, as the intricacies of the research Zenger and Folkman include are both fascinating and illuminating. Clearly, outdated stereotypes and unfounded biases are counterproductive in today’s highly competitive marketplace. All of us should consider whether we are part of the problem or the solution when it comes to creating opportunities for the advancement of women with leadership capacity.

As always, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts on this or any other matter relating to the management of your law firm, either in the comments section below, or directly via email.