The Authority Gap is Still a Reality for Women Executives. Here’s How to Fix It

Leadership StrategiesLeadership
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December 21, 2023
7 min read
Leadership StrategiesLeadership
Executive Summary
The Authority Gap reveals how women are still underestimated. Coaching can help women recognize their value and overcome bias.
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In her book The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, British journalist, BBC broadcaster and author Mary Ann Sieghart reveals how despite all our progress we’ve made, women are still chronically overlooked and underestimated, even at the highest levels of power—from Presidents and Prime Ministers to CEOs and thought leaders.

During my nearly 40-year career as a technology leader in male-dominated industries, I have seen and experienced this phenomenon for myself more times than I care to remember.

And so, inspired by the works of both Sieghart and Ali Vitali (Electable: Why America Hasn't Put a Woman in the White House... Yet), I set out to conduct my own qualitative research into this pervasive problem—and explore what role coaching might play in providing some solutions.

 

First, what is the Authority Gap?

It is the unspoken, unconscious bias that challenges women, based solely on their gender. It is the double standard that gives a man the benefit of the doubt, while constantly challenging a woman’s knowledge, expertise and power.

To quote Rebecca Solnit (who coined the term ‘mansplaining’), the Authority Gap is: “the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported over confidence.”

Even senior women at the top of their fields are not immune. In her book, Mary Ann Sieghart shares a story of an encounter between former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy and President George W. Bush. At a White House reception to thank Mulcahy and five other CEOs for their exemplary work fundraising for the victims of an earthquake in Pakistan, President Bush mistakenly thanked Mulcahy’s husband instead of her for “his amazing work at Xerox.”

Sieghart also tells the story of Mary McAleese, former President of the Republic of Ireland. Upon being introduced to Pope John Paul II on an official visit to the Vatican, the Pope reached past McAleese to shake her husband’s hand, asking whether he “would not prefer to be the President of Ireland, rather than be married to the President of Ireland?”

Recent research from McKinsey backs up these anecdotal examples. According to their Women In The Workplace Report 2022, women leaders are twice as likely as men to be mistaken for someone more junior. And it added that women are also “far more likely than men leaders to have colleagues question their judgment or imply that they aren’t qualified for their jobs.”

 

How does the Authority Gap impact senior executives today?

I was curious to learn more about how women at the top of their game experienced the Authority Gap. So, I carried out in-depth interviews with women in the United States who were either C-suite executives, or direct reports to C-suite executives. All were in their early to mid-fifties and half were women of color.

Here's what I learned:

  • The Authority Gap is real—and most women experience it. The concept of the Authority Gap resonated very strongly with every woman I spoke to. All had stories of being talked over, interrupted, or ignored. And all had experienced having their ideas or suggestions met with silence or skepticism—only for a man to be praised for saying exactly the same thing, moments later.

    In the words of one interviewee, “it feels like it’s not even a debate, it is so obvious in my own experience.”

  • Conditioning for the Authority Gap starts early. I heard how women are often socialized from a young age to be quieter, better behaved, and less outspoken. One interviewee recalled being told to “walk quietly” and that she “argued too much” as a child. (I, myself, was often told in a derisive tone, “My goodness, you are so outspoken!”) Whatever the message, this conditioning starts at an early age, and continues throughout life.

  • The Authority Gap makes women lose confidence. When women are interrupted, ignored or spoken over, they often blame themselves or try to rationalize why it happened. Maybe I was too quiet. Maybe I was too assertive. Maybe they didn’t hear me. Maybe I didn’t explain myself clearly enough.
    Over time, these constant microaggressions chip away at a woman’s confidence and self-belief. And according to a 2001 Columbia Business School study, the ‘sincere overconfidence’ of their male colleagues only exacerbates the problem.

    As one of my interviewees observed: “In these situations I always ask myself, ‘What did I do wrong? What could I have done better?’  I notice that whenever something doesn’t go my husband’s way he says, ‘What is wrong with them? What should they have done differently?’”

  • The Authority Gap can be overcome. Each of the women I spoke to had pivotal moments when they began to realize that they weren’t to blame—a moment when they truly recognized the value they brought to their organizations and teams. Once this lightning bolt had hit, they found it within themselves to point out they had already made the same suggestion at an earlier point in a conversation or ask an interrupter to let them finish their point. Once they acknowledged the value they brought to the table, it boosted their self-confidence and they found they could overcome the barriers to their achievement.

 

How coaching can help close the Authority Gap

Every woman will have experienced the Authority Gap at some point in her life, whether or not she had a name for it. But few will have ever seen or heard someone acknowledge it before. That must change.

By acknowledging what is happening and helping women to focus on their knowledge, capabilities and accomplishments, we can help build their self-confidence and lessen the impact of gender bias.

And this is where coaching can help, by bringing empathy and understanding to this topic.

01. Coaches can help you recognize the issue. Clearly, the first step in tackling any problem is to acknowledge that it exists, to speak the unspoken, make the invisible visible. The most powerful thing that coaches can do is simply acknowledge that the Authority Gap is real. It isn’t a figment of your imagination. It happens to all women, all the time. And it isn’t your fault. Simply hearing someone speak these truths out loud can be incredibly powerful. It will help you reflect on the reality of the situation, how you feel about it, and how it’s affecting your performance.

02. Coaches can help you claim your expertise. Think back over some of the confusing feedback or reactions you’ve had over the years, and ask yourself: would they have said or done the same thing to a man in the same situation? Coaches can help you truly reflect on the reactions you’ve received from managers and peers and reframe them in the context of the value your bring. They can help you focus on your competencies and areas of expertise; how they are differentiated from others; and how you can bring that differentiation to bear to solve problems and boost performance. This is critical if you are to reconcile and diffuse the confusion you often feel around biased feedback.

03. Coaches can help you perform. Recognition of the situation and owning your expertise can help you build self-confidence and develop coping strategies. What will you say next time someone steals your idea? What will you do next time someone tries to speak over you? Having a few pre-planned coping strategies up your sleeve makes these kinds of microaggressions easier to deflect, in the heat of the moment. Coaches can share their own experiences to inspire you to test new techniques, actions, and behaviors, and ultimately find what works for you.

Ultimately, the Authority Gap is not for women to fix. It’s not women who must change. Organizations must change, society must change, the system must change. We need to raise awareness of the Authority Gap and call it out where we see it. Only then will organizations truly move the dial on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and benefit from the full suite of leadership competencies that fuel organizational performance.

 


 

Authors

Kathleen M. Fitzpatrick, CIO Russell Reynolds Associates