Why are women massively outnumbered by men in senior public and private sector positions?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic uses a guest post for Harvard Business Review to list the standard theories:

“(1) they are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass-ceiling: an invisible career barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power. Conservatives and chauvinists tend to endorse the first; liberals and feminists prefer the third; and those somewhere in the middle are usually drawn to the second. But what if they all missed the big picture?”

We’ll have to forgive the author for his chauvinistic view of conservatives, because he goes on to offer an interesting alternative answer to the original question:

“In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence…”

This is all too true, but why should it favour men over women?

“…leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and… these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women…

“The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group.”

Or, to put it another way, it’s not just cream that rises to the top.

According to Chamorro-Premuzic, this not only explains why there so many more men than women in senior management positions,but also why everything is rubbish:

“…the majority of nations, companies, societies and organizations are poorly managed, as indicated by their longevity, revenues, and approval ratings, or by the effects they have on their citizens, employees, subordinates or members. Good leadership has always been the exception, not the norm.”

There’s no field of human activity more susceptible to the rise of the over-confident jerk than politics. Whether it’s about getting into Parliament or climbing up the greasy pole once you get there, advancement is frighteningly dependent on personal confidence as opposed to personal ability.

Imposing all-women shortlists or quotas around the Cabinet table won’t help for two reasons. Firstly, though women are, on the whole, less hubristic than their male counterparts, it’s always the most self-regarding individuals of either sex who feel most entitled to take advantage of a helping hand. Secondly, it doesn’t address the need to promote competent men as well as competent women.

Then there’s a completely different point, which is that competence isn’t enough anyway. The very best leaders don’t just manage a situation, they transform it (for the better). As Margaret Thatcher demonstrated, this kind of transformative leadership is by no means limited to men – but it does tend to be associated with some rather challenging personality traits (the brilliant but agreeable Editor of ConservativeHome being a notable exception, of course).

Therefore, in filtering out the jerks, we need to leave room for the flawed geniuses.