Women in Leadership Today and Societal Roadblocks – Part 3

By Jordan Winberg

The following article is part of a multi-part series of excerpts from the author’s senior thesis. Begin with Part 1. 


Low Self Esteem Found in Women

In addition to low levels of assertion, lower self-esteem in women may be harming their ability to perform well and/or be perceived as good leaders.

In 2004, Dove beauty products set out to obtain more information about how women view themselves, and how this can affect their life. The study was conducted by issuing surveys to 10 different countries around the world, and 3,200 women, ages 18-64, completed the survey. Results showed that only 2% of their respondents would use the word “beautiful” to describe themselves, a majority of respondents were not satisfied with their appearance, and a majority of respondents equated physical attractiveness with beauty (Etcoff, Orbach, Scott, & D’Agostino, 2004). These results suggest that a majority of women tend to have low self-esteem regarding their outward body image.

This may seem irrelevant to leadership ability, yet many women in this survey felt that their lack of physical attraction was harmful to their success. A staggering 45% of respondents agreed that “women who are more beautiful have greater opportunities in life”, 59% of respondents agreed that “physically attractive women are more valued by men”, 63% of respondents agreed that “women today are expected to be more physically attractive than their mother’s generation was”, and 60% of respondents agreed that “society expects women to enhance their physical attractiveness”. In addition, 68% of respondents agreed with the statement: “the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve”.

These results suggest that society is increasingly valuing a difficult and/or unobtainable standard of beauty, and that women feel that not being perceived as beautiful is harmful to their success, especially when it comes to the judgement of men.

Also, data from this study supports the theory that self-esteem in women is low, when their outward appearance is concerned. This study suggests that the media has a growing assertion that women need to be beautiful to succeed, and that this is lowering the self-esteem of women.

if low self-esteem does hinder leadership ability and/or perceived leadership ability, efforts will need to be made to elevate women’s low self-esteem, possibly through a change in the way women are portrayed in the media.

In 2008, psychologist Courtney Martin further explored the effects of low self-esteem in women in her book: “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women”. Through a review of case studies, Martin states that this is a culture that greatly values a standard of beauty that is next to impossible to achieve.

Secondly, Martin states that women in today’s society feel that they need to obtain perfection, and this leaves women and young girls with a feeling of constant failure and low self-esteem. Furthermore, Martin asserts, this is a generation that has told women that they can be whatever they want. However, Martin states that while parents around the world tell their daughters “you can be anything”, girls hear “you should be everything”.

Women today do have a variety of roles to fill (mom, wife/girlfriend, student, career women, and more), and it is possible that women feel pressure to obtain perfection in all of these roles. This may mean that society not only needs to devalue unrealistic standards of female beauty and perfection, but we may also need to be socially accepting of women who are not filling too many roles at once. Perhaps if this was done, women would have higher self-esteem.


Differentiating Social Expectations

In addition, a study conducted by Jones (2000) suggests that social expectations not only affect personality traits, but can also affect entire life goals. In his study, boys and girls were found to have aspirations for typical “male” and “female” jobs at an early age. His study also states that by the 6th grade, boys value jobs that are easy, where they could be controlling, become famous, and earn lots of money significantly more than girls; girls value jobs where they could be helping people more than boys, and girls are less likely to engage in science related activities (Jones, 2000).

Jones hypothesizes that these differences in job aspirations may be linked to differences in extracurricular activities and interests. Girls were found more often to be engaged and interested in home-related activities, helping activities, and communicative activities (gardening, knitting, cooking, animal interactions, healthy food choices). Jones hypothesized that societal pressures may push boys and girls to doing different activities, which, in turn, encourages different learned roles and future job outlook.

This trend seems to continue onward into adulthood, as job-seeking adult men and women stray towards their gender normed jobs. For example, there are many more men than women in engineering positions, and there are many more women than men in helping careers (Warner, 2014). In conclusion, not only can social pressures influence personality traits, but they may also influence entire job aspirations, which may have a negative effect on women in leadership.

Continue reading Part 4 here

Jordan WinbergJordan Winberg is…

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