The Danger of Sexism and Gender Stereotypes in Leadership

April 3, 2017 - 8 minutes read

The Backstory

Before I go into what happened last week, I figured it would be important to give a backstory.

My name is Kri Edholm. I’ve spent my entire career working in male-dominated industries like technology, search and rescue, and outdoor adventure endeavors. In most cases, I was the lone female of the group. I have been a jump master for AJ Hackett Bungy, a rigger for Le Reve, a rock climbing instructor, rafting guide, mountain rescue volunteer, and coder for software/web development companies. I have experience working as an executive in the technology industry and have sat on executive and non-profit boards.

As the owner of Leadership Excursion Co., I offer both leadership training and business coaching services. We specialize in operations by helping businesses operate more efficiently and implement training programs that support leadership development within an organization.

I am writing about the danger of sexism and gender stereotypes in leadership because this is the underlying current I’ve personally been swimming against and overcoming for nearly 25 years as a professional and as a woman. I’ve witnessed this time and time again and although it’s 2017, the current is still here. It’s alive and well.

This Really Happened

Last week, I attended a networking event comprised of professionals, business owners, and decision makers. The speaker for the evening had just wrapped up their talk and it was time to socialize and get to know others in the group. While networking, I ran into a friend of mine who owns a consulting business that offers services similar to my own.

Let’s call him “Carl”.

While Carl and I were catching up, “Jason” walked up to say hello. I knew Jason because I had recently presented a workshop to his leadership team. I introduced Jason to Carl and in doing so, they both described what they did for a living.

As soon as Carl described what he did, Jason responded, “Oh, so Carl, you help with operations and management and Kri, you focus on human resources?”

Right then and there, Jason stereotyped Carl and I based on our gender. Carl was “operations and management” and Kri was “human resources”.

Were we offended?

Was I offended? For a split-second, yes. Was Carl offended? I can only assume he was based on the sigh he let out along with the response, “ummm…not really.”

I was more offended because less than 30 days prior to this interaction, I stood in front of Jason and his senior leadership team and presented a 2-hour workshop that had nothing to do with human resources. In fact, I gave an overview of my services along with a workshop focused on management, leadership, and business operations. We also discussed in detail how I would partner with his organization’s human resources department to be sure operations and HR were on the same page. Roles were defined and mine did not include human resources at all.

In saying this, being offended doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Instead, I saw this as a learning experience to 1. revisit the delivery of my business overview (maybe my delivery can be more clear) and 2. an opportunity to educate.

The danger in sexism and gender stereotypes

In this particular scenario, I was gender stereotyped. But let’s not forget. So was Carl. This is blatant sexism and I can’t emphasize enough how dangerous this is for leaders.

The reason why this is so dangerous is because as a leader, you are limiting yourself. You’re limiting your team of people. You’re limiting everyone around you. If you come from a mindset that only women manage human resources, you are automatically decreasing your potential for working with a qualified and/or fitting HR resource by half.

By HALF!

Most leaders are already well aware of how difficult it is to find a resource that fits the need of any position.

As a leader, you’re also taking away opportunity for your resources to succeed. What if you had a human resources vacancy and your organization prefers to promote from within? What if you only looked at female resources and because you didn’t see a good fit, you hired an outsider? What if you had the right fit internally but they were male and you didn’t even consider them?

Well, you missed out and it’s not a small oversight. As an example, Jason sat through a 2 hour workshop with me and he wasn’t able to see past my sex. He potentially didn’t absorb the lesson because he placed an invisible limit on himself and in turn, his team.

It costs thousands of dollars to recruit, hire, and train new resources. It costs time to bring someone up to speed, make sure they’re a culture fit, and will bring your organization to a place you want it to be. If you brought in an outsider and they didn’t work out, you’ve lost valuable time, money, and potentially morale. It’s a setback you, as a leader, simply can’t afford.

What you can do

If you notice this happening around you, take every opportunity you can to educate. And don’t be shy about it because it’s unacceptable.

If you are a leader, take the time to do a self-evaluation. Is there a possibility that you’re limiting yourself and your organization because of underlying sexism or stereotyping? If you’re not sure how to self-assess, reach out to a business coach, attend a leadership training course, speak to a colleague, or discuss with your very own human resources department.

Related: 6 Tips for Choosing The Best Leadership Training Program

Although it catches me off guard when it happens, it doesn’t surprise me. I know all too well that sexism and gender stereotypes exist and it’s one of the reasons why I launched a leadership development business. This has been happening, it will continue to happen, and it’s not only women who are on the receiving end of this unfortunate action. Men are affected, too, and it’s time we take every opportunity to stop limiting ourselves as leaders.

Share your story with us in the comments below. What are you doing to overcome these types of challenges as a leader?