Studies Show That Female Executives Still Face an Uphill Battle

There's been some progress, but we still have a long way to go.

When it comes to women in the workforce, it’s no revelation that that the wage gap is only a piece of the broader picture. The number of women in leadership roles and how women are perceived and treated in those and other positions are a few more pieces to the ever-shifting puzzle.

On the same day, we came across two separate studies–one that we found heartening, and another that let the wind out of our sails PDQ. According to The Heidrick & Struggles Board Monitor, more women are joining the boards of major companies than ever before (woo!). Meanwhile, a study done by VitalSmarts found that being angry or “acting in a forceful manner” at work costs women (who are apparently expected to be ceaselessly demure and unassuming creatures) more than $15,000 in perceived worth. UGH.

First, the good news: Of the 339 new directors appointed to Fortune 500 boardrooms in 2014, 99 were women. This represents 29.2% of the total, which, compared to 25.9% in 2013 and 22.8% in 2012, is notable progress (if still far from equality).

One reason growth for women in this area has been fairly slow, according to Heidrick & Struggles’ vice chairman/managing partner Bonnie Gwin, is that most business leaders think an ideal director would have CEO experience. But only about 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Do you see a pattern developing here?

That said, the increase in female appointments does demonstrate a positive shift. Gwin said:

“Boards are more open to candidates with different leadership profiles, experiences and backgrounds. This shift will lead to greater diversity of thinking and help boards benefit from wider-ranging strategic insights.”

But while women bring diversity of background and opinion to the table, it seems those opinions are only appreciated when delivered with a serene smile and soft voice.

According to the VitalSmarts study, women who become forceful or angry during a conversation may face “emotional inequality” and suffer greater backlash than their male colleagues.

When speaking angrily or forcefully, the woman’s perceived competence dropped by 35 percent– and the decline in her “perceived worth” was far greater than that of male colleagues who behaved exactly the same way in the same scenario.

However, if the woman in question framed her aggressive statement by first saying something like, “I know it’s risky for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly,” the social backlash was reduced by as much as 27 percent.

So… it’s okay for a woman to express a strong opinion in an assertive fashion, as long as she preemptively apologizes and admits she knows such a thing is unseemly due to her gender?

We’ve still got a long way to go.