I was recently (not for the first time) in a conversation where a woman said she never again wants to work for another woman. When I asked how many female bosses she’d had over the years, she replied: “One.”
We human beings strive for internal consistency. Leon Festinger, in his theory of cognitive dissonance, held that when a person experiences inconsistency (dissonance) the ensuing stress often motivates the individual to both reduce the dissonance and avoid any information that would increase it.
Now, you might think that a woman would experience some dissonance were she to state that she never wants to work for another female boss. But what if she believes that men make better bosses than women, in which case the single experience of working for a poor female boss actually helps avoid feeling dissonance?
There are lots of articles and papers about the dearth of women in top-level business and government jobs. While discrimination does exist, part of the answer may well lie with cognitive dissonance. To the extent that people in power believe that women are as capable as men to assume leadership, they’ll act in ways congruent with that belief. If they doubt that women can be effective leaders — especially in male-dominated professions — the desire to avoid dissonance would naturally lead them to deny high-level promotions to women until and unless such doubts give way to greater confidence.
Pointing to the successful careers of one or two prominent women won’t do the trick. It hasn’t worked so far. They can be dismissed as exceptions. A boss once told me that we had few women in senior positions because qualified ones were exactly that – hard to find and exceptions to the rule. It allowed him to maintain congruence between his failure to hire women leaders and his view of himself as fair minded.
For some people, having a daughter finally opens their eyes to how antiquated their beliefs are – assuming the daughter is not viewed as an exception. It’s difficult to be proud of your daughter and have high hopes for her career if you refuse to promote women to leadership positions.
If you work where women aren’t readily promoted, it may be time to find ways to show those who harbor doubts about female leadership that such beliefs are inconsistent with other beliefs they hold dear. Shine the light on contradictions. In short, use cognitive dissonance to facilitate promotions of women rather than the opposite. That path may take some research into the belief systems of those holding women back, but it may also take another chip out of a glass ceiling that should have been a thing of the past long ago.