The workplace landscape has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Fifty years ago, only 38 percent of adult women were in the labor force, while today that number is closer to 60 percent. Yet even though more than half of all women work today, they make up only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 company CEOs. This stark discrepancy has given rise to many theories as to why more women aren’t in leadership positions in the corporate world. One recent study may be shedding some light on the issue.

According to a research study conducted by the Technical University of Munich, the way a job ad is worded can dissuade many women from even applying. Researchers showed test subjects fictional job ads that included traits normally associated with men, such as “assertive,” “independent,” “aggressive,” and “analytical.” Many of the female test subjects deemed these jobs less appealing and were less inclined to apply to them. On the other hand, they found job ads with words like “dedicated,” “responsible,” “conscientious,” and “sociable” more appealing.

The study shows that women may not identify with what have been traditionally considered to be “male” traits related to leadership in the workplace. They don’t see those words as describing their skills and aptitudes, so they make the incorrect and detrimental assessment that they’re simply not right for the job. Perhaps not surprisingly, the wording of the job ads made no difference to the male test subjects in the study.

More troubling still, the study also showed that women rate their own leadership skills lower than men’s. Although all of the respondents (male and female) agreed that both men and women are equally competent, productive, and efficient, the women in the study rated themselves and other women as being less capable in leadership positions than the men did.

This part of the study demonstrates a reality that all too many of us are familiar with: although we know that both men and women are capable of succeeding in leadership positions, women simply have more self-doubt than men.

  1. So what are women to do? First, they must stop underestimating and doubting themselves. Everyone has their fair share of self-doubt at one time or another, but that time should not be when they’re looking for a job in a leadership position – especially since women today are more qualified than ever. According to a recent U.S. Labor Department survey, 32 percent of women had a bachelor’s degree by age 27, compared with 24 percent of men. Women now have more of the training, education, and experience needed to succeed in upper management.
  2. Second, they should consider the fact that there are no perfect positions and no perfect candidates. Recruiters and head-hunters have jobs because it’s not easy to find the right person for a given position. Rather than reading a job ad and thinking that they’re not “perfect” for the job, women should consider whether they have the experience necessary to do it and the willingness to learn and grow from it – that’s what really makes a leader successful.
  3. And third, women should realize that companies are looking for more female managers and executives today. Although female representation in senior positions is small compared to men, the number has grown faster in the last decade than ever before. Companies are realizing that they have a lot to gain by hiring people with different perspectives, so the workforce is becoming more multicultural and more women are being hired for leadership positions. Women should take advantage of this shift and go for those upper-level spots in companies looking for fresh new perspectives.

But women applicants aren’t the only ones who need to start shifting their mindsets. Employers and HR departments have a big role to play in turning this ship around. Instead of wondering why more women don’t apply to management jobs, try appealing to qualified women in a different way. Professor Claudia Peus, the Chair of Research and Science Management at the Technical University of Munich who headed the study, said, “Without a profile featuring at least balanced wording, organizations are robbing themselves of the chance of attracting good female applicants.” A more balanced job ad might be the first step in the right direction, by getting talented female leaders interested in joining your company.

Andreea Hrab

International HR Director for OSF Global Services, Andreea is a veteran recruiter who has seen them all. She developed HR recruiting strategies and retention programs that guarantees the success of the company. She is a people person and she handles very easy new relationships with new employees, but her most interesting challenge is to find the middle way between company’s best interests and employee’s needs. To learn more about Andreea contact her on LinkedIn.

4 Comments

  • Avatar Susan Park says:

    I think it’s more a matter of women being not confident and not believing in themselves. The ad usually describes the qualities of the best candidate a company is looking for, and if a person afraid of taking this challenge – then, probably, it’s better for such a person to look for a different job.

  • Avatar Melissa Day says:

    Women do have a lot of career opportunities now- they should just be willing to take a challenge and work hard if they want to become successful. And it’s true not only about women – everyone has to work hard and take a challenging job if they really want to achieve something in life. I agree that it’s not so much about job ads – but about women feeling insecure or not willing to come out of the comfortable zone.

  • Avatar Darrel Tyree says:

    Interesting article, especially since the most assertive, independent and analytical people I know happen to be women.

  • Avatar Paul says:

    Leadership is not about gender, it’s about attitude, perspective and self-confidence. Women should apply for a leadership position based on their skills and knowledge not on a general description of a job ad. In the last years this situation has changed and I’m sure that in the future, based on the precedents that will be created, women will have more confidence in applying to these job positions.

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