Old-fashioned gender roles tend to sneak their way into our everyday experiences, shaping the expectations and roles individuals play throughout their lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of academic collaboration, where group projects serve as petri dishes for skills that seemingly define our roles in society. One such role, often thrust upon women from a young age, is that of the organizer and coordinator. But, as we progress from childhood to the professional world, we find a stark contrast between the leadership qualities cultivated in women and the scarcity of their presence in corporate leadership roles.
Try to remember your elementary group science fair project. Maybe you were assigned to create a model of the solar system or figure out how to light up a lightbulb using a potato. Even then, you probably remember the girl in the group taking charge — distributing tasks and making sure everyone had a role. Flash forward to college and the script remains remarkably similar. In the latest group project, that girl from elementary school once again finds herself in the organizational driver’s seat, but this time the stakes are way higher.
It’s a narrative ingrained from youth that suggests women are natural leaders, who possess a gift for orchestrating the intricate landscape of teamwork. However, the disconcerting reality reveals a different story when we shift the spotlight to the professional realm. Despite the early cultivation of organizational prowess, women find themselves navigating a labyrinth of obstacles on the path to leadership in the workplace. But at what point does childhood leadership turn into corporate underrepresentation?
In 2015, The New York Times found that fewer women ran large companies than men named John. Despite subtle growth over the past few years, a more recent study revealed that even in 2021, women held only a mere 31.7% of top executive positions across U.S. industries. And although the American workforce is 47.4% women, they hold only 42.1% of all managing positions. The proverbial glass ceiling persists, despite the strides made in acknowledging and dismantling gender-based barriers.
From early childhood, girls are often encouraged to be nurturing, cooperative and organized. These qualities, while valuable, are not those typically associated with leadership. The result is a generation of women who excel in organizational roles but face implicit biases when aspiring to attain leadership positions. Research finds that leadership positions are filled by people seen as assertive and dominant. Not so coincidentally, these perceived attributes tend to be associated with men. Corporate cultures, usually unintentionally, perpetuate stereotypes that associate leadership with traditionally masculine attributes. When women do try to exemplify these qualities they are often written off as being bossy or aggressive. The consequence is a professional landscape where women who excelled in organizational roles during their academic pursuits are overlooked when vying for leadership positions.
In the academic realm, women find themselves time and again in the role of the “invisible leader,” coordinating efforts and managing schedules. While these responsibilities are crucial to the overall success of the group, the irony lies in the erosion of women’s authority within this framework. The demands of organizational tasks often overshadow their potential contributions to the more research-heavy and data-oriented aspects of the project. The organizational skills cultivated in academia become a double-edged sword when transitioning to professional settings. In the workplace, women find themselves shouldering the lion’s share of administrative tasks, such as scheduling and team management, mirroring the patterns established during academic collaborations. Their professional contributions may be overshadowed by the stereotypical expectations that associate them more with organizational roles rather than positions of strategic leadership.
The solution lies in redefining leadership qualities and challenging the existing norms that confine women to certain roles. This starts in academia. It requires a shift in our understanding of leadership, one that recognizes and values diverse styles and approaches.
College campuses serve as incubators for future leaders, making it a pivotal space where stereotypes can be challenged and a more inclusive definition of leadership can be built. Group projects, a staple of academic collaboration, should be structured to encourage a collective leadership approach. Assigning roles and responsibilities based on individual strengths rather than conforming to historical gender roles allows for a more inclusive distribution of leadership within the group. Educators play a pivotal role in this transformation by fostering an environment where mutual respect prevails.
Universities like the University of Michigan should focus on implementing mentorship programs for female leaders to gain professional guidance. By connecting students with experienced mentors, schools foster an environment where young women can understand and develop the skills that it takes to be a leader in a professional setting. Oakland University’s Women’s Leadership and Mentor Program does just that. Female students are paired with professional role models who make themselves available as a resource for students to use while navigating the path from college to the workforce. Mentees are encouraged to reach out to their mentors with questions about job searches, for practice with interviews or simply to ask for professional advice. Mentorship programs not only break down gender barriers by showcasing diverse role models but also instill confidence and empower young women to embrace leadership roles. Through these programs, schools can contribute to a more inclusive and equal future by nurturing the next generation of female leaders and challenging traditional gender norms within educational and professional spheres.
The disparity between women’s frequent leadership roles in school group projects and their underrepresentation in professional leadership positions is a reminder of the systemic challenges they face in the workforce. To bridge this gap, both schools and workplaces must recognize and reward a diverse set of leadership qualities, creating an inclusive environment that values the managerial expertise that many women naturally bring to the table. By dismantling gender biases and fostering a culture that embraces a variety of leadership styles, we can work towards a future where the professional landscape is defined by merit and inclusivity, enabling more women to take over leadership roles in the corporate world.
Téa Santoro is an Opinion Columnist who writes about college culture and student life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.