“We are just learning how to understand women as leaders.”

So sayeth Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management. (Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, August 10.)

Is he scary – or funny?! I suspect that Professor Sonnenfeld regrets his remark, which looks perfectly foolish on paper. After all, we now have thirty plus years of extensive research and writing on women and leadership – so it’s not exactly as if they’re an unknown species, only recently emerged from under a rock.

The article focused – yet again, ho-hum – on Marissa Mayer. But here’s what’s interesting. While we fixate on a handful of female stars – one Hillary Clinton comes to mind – the numbers stay stubbornly the same. There are some exceptions to this general rule – about which more another time – but by and large the number of women at or even near the top remains low. To take just a single random example, the number of women on the boards of the United Kingdom’s largest companies is just over 25%. This figure is hardly any higher than it was in 2011, when a 25% target was initially set. (The target has since been updated, to 33% by 2020.)

Here’s my point. It’s not that we’re “just learning how to understand women as leaders.” We understand a lot about “women as leaders.” It’s just that we don’t see a lot of women as leaders. There’s a distinction, in other words, between what we know and what we see. It’s a distinction Professor Sonnenfeld would do well to bear in mind.



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