On March 23, 2016, Al-Hewar Center hosted an event about ďThe Lack of Equal Rights of Women: Is the Problem in Culture, Religion or Human Nature?Ē  The panel included Dr. Amal David, Ms. Jihan Andoni, Ms. Bushra Jabre, and Dr. Malak bin Salem.  The following is Dr. Salemís presentation:


Women and Leadership Positions

By Malak Ben Salem


Iíd like to start by thanking Mr. Sobhi Ghandour and Al-Hewar Center for celebrating Womenís International Day and for pushing the conversation about Womenís Equal Rights within our community.

Iíve opted for discussing the topic from a different perspective. Instead of focusing on Womenís equal rights (or lack thereof) globally, Iíd like to focus on Women in leadership positions. Despite the adoption of the UNís Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and many constitutions guaranteeing equal rights between all citizens, and in particular between women and men, there is still a discrepancy between womenís rights on paper and on the ground. While explicit forms of discrimination against women are prohibited in many countries, women still face other forms of discrimination which are hindering them from reaching their full potential when it comes to contributing to their society. 

Disparity continues

For instance, consider Womenís voting rights in the United States. They were established nationally in 1920. However, Americans have not elected a woman president yet. On the other hand, voting rights of racial minorities, including African Americans, were only secured in the sixties of the twentieth century after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed, and the first African American president was elected in 2008. This raises the question whether women are facing additional challenges to attain leadership positions that are beyond what minority groups typically face.

Let me start with some statistics to illustrate the gap between the percentage of women entering the workforce and the percentage of women who attain leadership positions.

In corporate boards, the percentage of women ranges between 8% and 35% in Europe, between 17% and 20% in Europe, and between 3% and 19% in Asia.  In the United States, women make up 47% of the workforce and occupy 51% of the professional and management positions, but they constitute only 14.6% of the executives and 17% of corporate boards, 5% of CEOs, and only 8% of the highest paid individuals.

The gap between the percentage of women at the base and women at the top can be larger, even in sectors where women represent the majority of the workforce. For instance, in the healthcare sector, women constitute 78% of the entering workforce, but no pharmaceutical company or hospital CEO is a woman. Similarly, 57% of all college students are female, but only 10% of school deans are.

The unconscious bias

Some explain this as an accumulated disadvantage due to an unconscious bias that working women face as they try to further their careers. Unconscious biases are prejudices that we are not aware of. These are a form of what is known as second-generation gender bias. While first-generation gender bias consisted in overt discrimination and deliberate barriers, second-generation gender bias creates unconscious, subtle, inadvertent and sometimes invisible barriers.

For instance, high-achieving women face unique social penalties for their success according to a recent Harvard Business Review article. In fact, many research studies show that women leaders face a competence/likability double bind, and are perceived as non-likeable if they are highly successful. On the other hand, if they are likable by the peers and subordinates, they are generally perceived as non-competent. So success and competence do not go hand-in-hand with likability for women leaders[1]. This double standard makes it harder for women to go up the corporate ladder, as they need to meet higher standards than do men.

Unconscious gender bias starts at the hiring stage for entry-level jobs, as various studies show[2],[3], but it continues throughout the career of a female professional. Disadvantages thus accumulate over a womanís career and therefore widen the gap between men and women at the top of the corporate ladder.

There are also unconscious schemas about motherhood. In a study published in the American Journal of Sociology[4], mothers were less likely to be recommended for hire, promotion, and management. The study found that they were offered lower starting salaries than non-mothers. Evaluators rated mothers as less competent and less committed to work than non-mothers. Fathers, on the other hand, were perceived as more committed to work and offered higher starting salaries than non-fathers.

Why is gender bias unconscious?

Many people are unconscious about gender bias for various reasons:

1)     People do not like to think that they are biased. Every person likes to think that they treat others fairly.

2)     People think that promotions at work are based on merit and competence. As they value the competence of some women, they do not believe that they could sometimes behave in a biased manner towards women.

3)     There are some women who have made it to top leadership positions, which makes people think that the system is fair to women (if they are competent enough). However, they disregard the fact that these women are a minority and are still the exception.

Organizations need women as leaders

Many studies found that female leaders equal or outperform their male counterparts. A leadership study conducted by the leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman and published in the Harvard Business Review looked into 16 leadership competencies for men and women assessed through 360 evaluations.[5] The study, which collected data from leadersí peers, managers, and direct reports from different organizations, found that women were evaluated higher than men in 12 of the 16 leadership competencies, while men outperformed women significantly in only 1 leadership competency. In particular, women were highly rated for taking initiative, driving results, displaying high integrity, and helping others develop. This proves that women are highly qualified for leading organizations. Organizations need more women as leaders in order to improve their results.


Women face unique challenges and barriers as they rise to leadership in their workplaces. Because of these challenges, it is even more important for women to invest time and effort in further developing their leadership skills and in highlighting (graciously) cases of unconscious bias in order to change the status quo. By connecting and engaging with others, women can change organizations for the better.


[1] http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2015/women-leaders-does-likeability-really-matter

[2] http://www.aauw.org/2015/06/11/john-or-jennifer/

[3] http://advance.cornell.edu/documents/ImpactofGender.pdf

[4] http://gender.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/motherhoodpenalty.pdf


[5] https://hbr.org/2012/03/a-study-in-leadership-women-do/


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