Bridging the Gap Between Gender and Leadership

This feature article sought to investigate the practical and theoretical reasons behind the lack of female involvement on the 2014-2015 Executive Council for McGill University's Management Undergraduate Society.

Originally published in The Bull & Bear as the cover article in the January 2015 issue

McGill Women in Leadership (MWIL); Desautels Women in Business (DWIB); TEDxMontreal Women; The National Women in Business Conference; The Intercollegiate Business Convention. 

Evidently, as the non-exhaustive list above demonstrates, there are many occasions for women at McGill to thrive and shine in the area of leadership, where they are chronically and critically underrepresented. Within Bronfman, and McGill as a whole, women apply to volunteer, speak, participate, and join a host of clubs and initiatives highlighting female leaders. This just serves to show that, here at McGill, go-getters surround us, and females are no exception.

Curiously enough, in the past four years, the number of women on the MUS Executive Council has steadily decreased. This shift has culminated in this year’s council where there are absolutely no women leading our undergraduate society. That means, in a faculty where 51.2 percent of its 2,344 students are female, there’s not a single woman to “act as the primary contact point for all members of the MUS,” as per the Society’s Constitution.

Although not a representative branch per se, the Executive Council nonetheless retains the prerogative to “implement the strategic directives set forth by the Board of Directors [BoD] of the Council,” which is in fact the MUS institution tasked with representation. Accordingly, while the BoD is in charge of “defin[ing] the long-term strategy to fairly and efficiently achieve the mission of the MUS,” the fact remains that, under Executive Policy, the “[o]perations of the Management Undergraduate Society [are] governed by those sitting on Executive Council.” The immanent representative role of the Council is made even more manifest when you consider the fact that “[i]t is the responsibility of the MUS executive to protect the interests of its shareholders (BCom Students).”

As reported previously in The Bull & Bear, “an increase in the proportion of women in leadership positions improves boardroom decisions as women provide diversified human experiences and competencies.” According to the theoretical equation that states that [Crowd Error = Average Error - Diversity], “the more gender diverse a team is, the better it is at decision-making and problem solving. Period.” Therefore, though the MUS Executive Council isn’t explicitly tasked with representation, it could all the same benefit from gender diversity.

That being said, we’re not the only school with this problem. As noted by the Washington Post in 2011, of the 50 top schools ranked by the U.S News & World Report, only one third had female student body presidents. Nationwide, women only occupy 40 percent of student president positions in American universities and community colleges. Here in Canada, according to a report published by StudentsNS, “women are significantly less likely to hold positions on Student Executives, Councils, Senates and Board of Governors than men [and] this is true for both elected and hired positions.”

Clearly, there’s still room for improvement.

This persistent underrepresentation flies in the face of the fact that – more often than not – women now form the majority of the student body in post-secondary institutions: 57.8 percent of McGill students identify as female. At a time when female enrollment in post-secondary institutions, graduation rates, and academic success have begun to surpass that of their male counterparts, there remains a worrying trend of female underrepresentation in student government. All this begs the question: what’s gone wrong? 

Are Women Holding Themselves Back?
Last November, Desautels’ own OB/HR Network held a workshop addressing the dual issues of diversity and gender in the workplace. The event was organized as a discussion between students, a panel of researchers, and McGill professors. Attendees were asked to reflect on the ever-changing role of women in the work environment by tackling the obstinate realities of the wage gap and sexual discrimination/harassment in the office. At the same time, they also explored the notion of diversity – or lack thereof – in leadership positions, as well as what needs to be done to overcome the chronic underrepresentation of women in leadership.

In an attempt to uncover the processes that ostensibly inhibit the full participation of women in the modern workforce, Patricia Hewlin, one of the panelists and a professor in the faculty’s Organizational Behaviour department, boldly stated that “young women pull themselves back from opportunities” before their careers have even started. She then went on to clarify that women are socially conditioned to restrict themselves from pursuing certain career opportunities, as they are constantly “thinking about the impact [of their decisions] on their potential family.”

This thought was later echoed by another professor, Brian Rubineau, who pointed out studies which have demonstrated that “women disproportionately self-select” themselves as being ill-suited for work in certain fields solely on the basis of gendered preconceptions. This “self-selection”, according to Rubineau, is principally the result of both implicit and explicit messages in media, as well as in the social circles of many female young professionals.

A cliché, yet incredibly poignant, example of such a message is the classic image of the world of finance being just like a page straight out of the script for The Wolf of Wall Street. Believing they could never “fit in” amid such hostile, testosterone-driven work environments, some women consciously hold themselves back from such career opportunities by simply asking themselves: “Why even bother?”

Supply and Demand
In student government, this act of actively holding oneself back from different opportunities – as a vestige of both traditional and modern interpretations of gender roles – is just as rife as in the professional world. In fact, the prevalence of this phenomenon can be attributed to one unsettlingly simple aspect of this day and age: “women still see themselves as outsiders.” Those words, voiced by Kate Farrar of the American Association of University Women, lend credence to the idea that not enough women are actively choosing to partake in high levels of leadership, like student government. The issue is not that women aren’t winning, or that we’re only electing men, it’s that they aren’t running in the first place.

That being said, is the issue of inclusion and diversity simply a matter of introductory macroeconomics? Is it really as simple as the basic notion of supply and demand, and that, despite the demand for women in the highest levels of student government, there is no supply of women willing to take on such roles?

Worryingly enough, this seems to be the case: last year, not a single woman applied for VP appointment on the MUS Executive Council.

Why Aren’t Women Applying?
In determining the reasons why women aren’t applying to leadership positions in an academic context, it’s important to remember that, as gregarious creatures, we love to socialize. However, that tendency to interact with others is generally more prominent when we are within our comfort zone, and are ideally surrounded by people we know or people we can at least relate to. Our tendency to associate ourselves with people similar to us is called homophily, which literally means “love for the same.” As Xavier Saint-Denis, a sociologist on the panel, concisely put it: we simply “like to hang out with people [who are] just like us.” 

In the workplace, the effects of gender homophily are best exemplified by the reluctance of women to apply for positions in which they are underrepresented. This idea is tied to the theory that women “self-select” and restrict themselves from certain opportunities when they are unable to identify with those who are already in such positions. Simply put, people do not apply because they do not feel they would “fit in.” This phenomenon is evident in our faculty, but also in our male-dominated national governments, where, as discussed in the Harvard Political Review, the average woman must be asked seven times – by seven different people – to run for a political position. 

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
During the panel, Hewlin also insisted that “we have to become more comfortable establishing relationships with people who don’t look like us.” Her statement, though easier said than done, challenges women to break free of the self-fulfilling prophecy that has contributed to their underrepresentation. According to an article published by the Huffington Post on student government elections, “when women don't see other female candidates, [they will be] less inclined to think about student government as an option for themselves.”

Such self-fulfilling prophecies manifest themselves through the reliance on expectations, which are often based on societal trends and further enforced by gender roles. Be it positive or negative, these assumptions condition an individual’s behavior, which in turn causes the predictions to come true. This kind of feedback loop ensures that chronic underrepresentation simply begets even more chronic underrepresentation.

Having said that, the MUS Executive Council is quite the peculiar case study in gender diversity because the trend has actually been a more diverse Council, with the past two years more or less being anomalies. In fact, from 2005-2011, there were only ever female Presidents. Additionally, in both 2011-2012 and 2009-2010, the Council was female-dominated, with 57 and 67 percent of seats being occupied by women, respectively. On that account, it seems that, though the gendered expectations holding women back maybe be accurately posited on the external reality of the modern working world, within the MUS, it’s a completely different story.

However, as aforementioned, the share of women on the MUS Executive Council has been steadily decreasing for the past four years. With this year’s absolute low, one can’t help but wonder what it is about the structure of the MUS (and the faculty as a whole) that was so conducive to creating an environment where no women were willing to throw their hat in the ring – to ironically use an idiom with quite the gendered origins. With a SSMU Executive Committee that is two-thirds female, and other faculty executive councils having at least one woman this past year, this issue seems to be more Bronfman-specific than it is McGill-wide.

The Rule of the Frats
According to the Washington Post, “people who track student government say the gender gap is often reinforced by fraternities who vote en masse for male candidates.” In Bronfman, this couldn’t be any more true. Undoubtedly, there are many sororities at McGill that successfully enable the creation and maintenance of venues where young women can interact with each other and develop life-long bonds. Nevertheless, their numbers and campus-wide reach pale in comparison to frats.

Frankly, nothing can compete with the “Old Boys Club” potency of fraternities, especially at Bronfman High. They offer their members an additional level of socialization replete with networking opportunities, solid support systems and a slew of mentorship activities between new pledges and members in high places, such as the MUS Executive Council.

On the topic of informal mentoring, Rubineau linked it back to the idea of homophily. Such opportunities, he asserted, are “often provided to similar others.” He then gave examples that often occur in the workplace such as “grabbing a beer after work or going golfing.” The link between the overrepresentation of men in student government and fraternities is essentially that frats provide circumstances for informal mentoring that always occur in a gendered context that segregates women.

What could the long-term consequences of such an informal mentorship be? Perhaps, the lessons passed on during such instances of bonding and relationship-building between brothers could unconsciously be viewed as prerequisites, especially if – year after year – it’s the same cohort of students who are appointed to hold leadership positions on the MUS Executive Council. Further, this belief can deter very capable leaders from applying because they may conclude they do not meet the social qualifications, know the right people, or even possess the right skills and personality traits to be chosen.

The MUS: Personified 
The importance of frats and informal mentorship in grooming potential candidates reveals the nature of the MUS Executive Council, and the MUS itself, to be just as much a social organization as it is a professional one. It is often said that, as an institution, the MUS has personality traits – a results-driven mindset, extroversion, and confidence – that it looks for within applicants. However, according to a 2011 report published by Princeton’s Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership, women generally tend to be more collaborative in leadership, take more time to compose their thoughts, prefer working more in the background, and generally graduate with a level of confidence inferior to that of their male peers.

This inclination for behind-the-scenes work and distaste of having a highly-visible public profile often results in female students preferring to take on leadership positions within clubs, rather in student government. Additionally, the scarcity of informal mentorship opportunities deprives women of occasions to become more acquainted with the personality traits necessary for “fitting in” within the MUS. Indeed, it takes a certain level of extroversion to be a successful advocate for the student body, but does the participation in certain social events, such as frats, Hype Week/Carnival, and even Frosh – where this informal mentoring/networking often occurs – make you more or less qualified?

In the case of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and her husband, Bill, served as informal mentors in her steps to the Capitol. Thinking about this sort of coaching, it is logical that we would feel more confident and motivated to run if we were personally commended on our skills. After all, the aforementioned Princeton report found that “women were less likely to self-nominate; rather they choose to run for elections after being approached and encouraged by mentors or friends.” In fact, mentorship is continuously mentioned in books, such as Sheryl Sandberg’s movement-spawning Lean In, as a key to getting more women into leadership roles. Yet, you can’t help but wonder if certain very qualified individuals do not gain the confidence necessary to run if they are left out of a circle of informal mentorship.

Are We All Implicitly Sexist?
When it comes to women applying for leadership positions within institutions where they historically find themselves underrepresented, the question of confidence – or lack thereof – can also be linked to the idea that such qualities are more often attributed to men. As one of the many reductive vestiges of traditional gender roles, this male-female dichotomy in personality traits unfortunately remains prevalent in today’s society. Such presumptions of men being more destined for leadership positions are notably manifested through what is now called the implicit bias.

Implicit gender bias is the unconscious assumption that to be a leader, or even just considered competent in certain fields, an individual must possess specific personality traits – which just happen to often be based on traditional male characteristics. Adding to that definition, Rubineau defined implicit bias as “the persistence of gender-based perceptions” in the attribution of gender to certain roles/positions. Therefore, for positions that have historically been dominated by men, there is often an unconscious bias in favour of men, thus maintaining the status quo of male leadership and advancement. Quoting an article published by The Globe and Mail on the gendered disparity between the recognition of academics by their university employers, “it [is] clear that subtle biases in hiring and promotions are still pervasive – often unintentionally.”

The unintentional nature of implicit bias lends credence to the idea that, implicitly, we are all sexist. In fact, there is a test, the Implicit Association Test, developed by researchers at Harvard and the University of Washington in 1998, that actually measures just how susceptible we are to unconscious bias in terms of gender, race, sexuality, age, and other variables. The result? Well, according to the Harvard Political Review, it turns out that many of us, women and feminists included, are sexist, as we seem to find it harder to associate women with leadership.

Tackling Gender Bias through Increased Representation
Now that we know that, implicitly, we’re all sexist, what can be done to change that? According to Melissa Songberg, another panelist and a former senior VP of Aimia, in changing the mainstream mindset of implicit bias and the perceptions of gender roles, “part of the responsibility rests with us.” She went on to add that a crucial starting point would be to further kindle “an entrepreneurial spirit in women.” However, for that to succeed, Hewlin specified that it also requires society as a whole recognize that there are in fact still opportunities for women to trailblaze. This entails that women no longer limit themselves to making decisions “based solely on current representativeness.”

For Rubineau, another step would be to eliminate the double standard that occurs “when women adopt more masculine traits/strategies [in order to appear more confident] and they are penalized more.” The fact that this is seen as an implicit “violation of gender norms” is completely reductive, as it prevents women from expressing themselves in a manner that differs from the archetype of the female submissive. Because it dichotomizes gender expectations in leadership between the boss (i.e. an assertive man) and the bitch (i.e. a “bossy” woman), such an implicit bias stereotype undermines the capacity for women to be credibly seen as leaders.

Ultimately, the most important course of action that any of us can and must take is to become aware of implicit gender bias and the role it plays in our decision-making process. When it comes to reducing biases, the more you know about how the mind works, the less likely you will be to rely on them when making decisions. Be it by educating oneself on the topic, reading articles such as this one, discussing with friends, or even taking a moment to analyze one’s decisions, we must challenge ourselves to become more critical of the status quo of female underrepresentation in leadership.

Even on campus, there are many opportunities for students to learn more about the importance of diversity in leadership positions. A striking example of such an initiative is the pop-up focus group organized by U3 Desautels student, Sarah Campbell, as part of her Independent Study project on the subject of diversity and inclusion. Every Friday last term, women and men alike engaged in a forum – open to everyone – tackling the issue of the Faculty’s lack of representation of women, as well as racial and sexual minorities. Seeking to break the cycle of female underrepresentation, they gathered in a space of positivity, confidentiality, and candidness, and were able to gain an understanding of the impediments to equal participation.

Though there may be no women on the MUS Executive Council, being appointed VP isn’t the only way for female students to get their voices heard. In fact, council meetings are open to all undergraduate students in the Faculty. When Sarah Campbell walked into an MUS Executive Council meeting last November, she was the first student this year to attend. This lack of attendance is not the fault of the MUS, but our fault as students, for not questioning, applying, and participating on a regular basis in open-door events such as these.

As Matthew Hesmondhalgh, an ardent fighter for systems change, wisely said, “Good models of access and inclusion are not achieved overnight.” It’s a reminder that our problem of inclusion in this faculty is a complex, messy battle and requires time, perseverance, and a veritable desire to bring about change. Though it may seem like quite the daunting task, one thing is certain: we will never be victorious in this battle for equitable representation unless we are willing to fight for it.