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Has social conditioning been holding women back from leadership roles?

March 10, 2021 - 17 min read

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What is social conditioning?

Treating the cause, not the symptom

There’s social conditioning around men too

What gets rewarded gets repeated

Now what?

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Why are women underrepresented in leadership roles, and what we can do to change that? Research shows how social conditioning plays a role from a very early age, and provides clues to overcome it.

Men and women are nearly equally represented in entry level roles, but women become fewer and further between in every job level thereafter. Only 38 percent of manager roles are filled by women, and that number is further reduced to 21 percent in c-suite roles. What’s more, only 3 percent of c-suite roles are filled by women of color.

In 2020, we saw a record number of female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies—37. That’s right; only seven percent of the largest companies in the United States had a woman at the helm. And exactly one was a Black woman. That’s a far cry from worthy representation.

But what’s holding more women back from leadership roles? Social conditioning is likely playing a role within a multi-faceted problem.

What is social conditioning?

There are many causes, dimensions, beliefs, programming, and barriers that are interwoven within social conditioning.

It begins at birth and continues our entire lives. We are influenced by all the important people around us whom we’ve come to trust have our best interests at heart. Why would they ever lead us astray?

But it is exactly these influences that impact the way women view themselves as leaders, and hold them back from leadership roles.

Unless we change the story we’re being told, we will continue to live it out, like it’s true. At a minimum, we have to recognize, overcome, and reframe an internal belief structure that has been there since birth—shared with and by everyone around us.


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Treating the cause, not the symptom

“Treat the cause, not the symptom” is an adage coaches know well and remind people of often. Too many have a tendency to address the wrong part of the problem, allowing it to perpetuate.

For instance, women may begin to feel stressed, anxious, or depressed when they don’t take time for self-care. They may treat these symptoms with prescription medications, or unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking alcohol or smoking a cigarette. 

But perhaps the true cause of those symptoms is that women tend to put others before themselves. It’s important to unpack why that is, and what can be done about solving the root cause of the problem.

The same goes for our social conditioning around women’s and men’s roles. Begin by understanding how glass ceilings are self-imposed. According to a report by The American Association of University Women, a woman’s tendency to diminish and undervalue her professional skills and achievements is in place by adolescence. As adults, we’re just falling in line with what we’ve been told. 

Until the 19th century, science and math were deemed “unsuitable” for girls and women. Sophie Germain busted that myth, but we’re still tugging at the thread that holds beliefs like this together 200 years later.

As psychologist Janet Hyde points out, “Women in the United States now earn 48 percent of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and 30 percent of the doctorates,” she says. “If they can’t do math, how are they doing this? They can do math just fine.” 

So, what’s getting in the way of women having confidence in ourselves? Where did this belief even come from? Research shows culture and social conditioning are the main contributors to women’s lack of self-esteem, confidence, and assurance. That’s the cause we need to solve.

There’s social conditioning around men too

Boys and men experience social conditioning as well, but it’s vastly different. Women are mentally discounting their abilities, with no facts or experience to tell us otherwise, and often without reason. But men are taught to build themselves up, be at their best, and shoot for the top. That’s their social conditioning, their norm. 

The National Coalition of Girls Schools did a report on bias and barriers for women and leadership. Here are some interesting finds:

“Male students overestimate their skills and female students underestimate theirs relative to objective indicators of competence. In other words, both men and women miss the mark when it comes to self-evaluation. These kinds of errors can result in lost opportunities, wasted time, and poor choices.”

“Whereas men are socialized to be confident, assertive, and self-promoting, cultural attitudes toward women as leaders continue to suggest to women that it is often inappropriate or undesirable to possess those characteristics.”

The end result is that women condition themselves to believe that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) roles, leadership roles, or roles with power aren’t meant for them. On the other hand, men tend to over-compensate at work, be more assertive and confident, and feel entitled to leadership roles. Women are taught to pull back; men are taught to go full tilt.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink, he describes how this implicit bias works, and is subconsciously processed in microseconds: “All of us have implicit biases to some degree. This does not necessarily mean we will act in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner, only that our first “blink” sends us certain information. Acknowledging and understanding this implicit response and its value and role is critical to informed decision-making and is particularly critical to those whose decisions must embody fairness and justice.”

This is where our bias lives, in the micro-judgments of implicit bias. It made its home in our subconscious when we were children, and it has no intention of going quietly.


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What gets rewarded gets repeated

According to Geert Hofstede’s study on world cultures, the United States scores 62/100 on the Masculinity dimension. Higher scores indicate that more power is valued (Masculinity), while lower scores indicate that more nurture is valued (Femininity).

As a culture, the United States inherently values power, and holds it in higher regard than we do nurture. It could be because one of America’s founding principles—or conditionings—is the belief in meritocracy. That is, if you work hard and achieve, you will be rewarded. 

Americans tend to believe that nurture is available by default and it is therefore not as valuable as power. Power must be earned, and is available to all for the taking—through hard work. This conditioning helps keep the status quo in place because it seems fair. The issue is that women are starting farther behind than men, and have more ground to cover if they want to reach positions of power.

Another study defined the United States cultural practices and leadership ideals as “competitive and results-oriented, less attached to their families.” This coincides with a high-performance orientation wherein people are rewarded for setting and meeting challenging goals—which comes through in employee key performance indicators (KPIs) and quarterly reviews.

GLOBE also includes gender egalitarianism, or how cultures value roles deemed by gender. For the United States, this revealed, “When women leaders are expected to behave kindly and cooperatively as women but assertively and competitively as leaders, they are put in a no-win situation, which scholars call ‘role incongruity.’ Women whose leadership style runs counter to female stereotypes often experience resistance or backlash. In addition to being overlooked for advancement, fear of backlash can discourage them from actively pursuing opportunities. Typically, men do not experience backlash because ambition is consistent with masculine norms.” 

This can lead to cognitive dissonance. Women might tell themselves they believe they can be a strong leader, but behave in a way that is contradictory to that belief. This is where the work comes in of consciously shifting the behavior in order to align with the belief. Once that happens, and their beliefs are in harmony with their behaviors, the rate of successful behavior change increases. They can stretch themselves to reach their full potential.


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Now what?

Our beliefs shape our outcomes far more than our inherited DNA. That is, the beliefs we take in from birth and through childhood will be the framework and foundation of how we approach life. 

It’s what prompted Aristotle to say, “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will show you the man.” Aristotle knew that this is the time social conditioning takes root. 

The inner circle of influences—parents, teachers, television, peers, textbooks, and history— shape our world view. It shapes who we believe we are, and what we believe we can become. 

If we’re older than 7, we have our own work to do. The trick is understanding these prejudices aren’t always at our conscious level. We have subconscious attitudes about others and their abilities based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, and even height. These subconscious beliefs surface before the blink of an eye. They feel instinctual, but they are learned. They can be questioned, challenged, and reframed as well.

Some women are able to disconnect from this social conditioning. For example, Vice President Kamala Harris and Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer. They have overcome obstacles that others their positions have not encountered, simply because of their gender and race. They are the ones who inspire us and remind us of our capabilities as women, and as great leaders. 

There are many things we can do to support these women, challenge the status quo, and encourage more women to step into leadership roles:

  • Celebrate the women you do see in leadership: These include celebrities, your neighbor, yourself, and the next generation.
  • Increase your awareness of your biases: We can only solve a problem once we are aware it exists. Pay attention to your thoughts and instinctual blinks.
  • Practice positive affirmations: Focus your thoughts to be empowering (I can do this, I can learn), rather than judgmental (This is beyond me). As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” 
  • Use your influence: Recognize people who deserve it at work. Giving praise, gratitude, and recognition goes a long way. 
  • Take stock and choose your beliefs: Just because we have been conditioned to one belief, doesn’t mean it is above being questioned. Is it serving you? Does it hold you or others back, or lift you and others up?

Our prejudice is a semi-permanent bias. We may be prejudging someone not from experience, but from conditioning. Our response is a choice; we have response-ability. We can deliberately act out these values and beliefs. 

We are empowered to change the story, change the narrative, and consciously instill beliefs that encourage women rather than defaulting to what we’ve been told for generations.

Don’t let our biases rule the day: let’s take what we’ve learned and lead the way.

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Published March 10, 2021

Karyn Chylewski

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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