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broken ladderIn exploring reasons why women are still not proportionately represented at the leadership levels of American business, we are down to what McKinsey & Co. calls invisible “mind-sets.” These mind-sets give rise to obstacles – for women and gender diversity. Many business leaders are unconscious of these subtle habits of thought. If we become conscious of them, we can do something about them.  We can lower these obstacles.

One such obstacle is what I call “unconscious images.” Like the other mind-sets (the double bind and the comfort principle) this cause is neither malicious nor intentional. Consciousness of its existence, and its impact in the workplace, can lead to inclusive behaviors and cultures.

Anyone who has been alive at least nine months has “pictures” of how certain things look. For example, if I ask you to picture a CEO (close your eyes and do that), chances are you will not have an image of a short, plump, woman of color. Most people will imagine, in fact, a lean white male. And he will be tall. One study says that the average Fortune 500 CEO is over 6 feet tall, 2-3 inches taller than the average man!

If business leaders share this “white male” image of power and success, but are unconscious of it, there are advantages for people who fit this image. If someone “looks the part,” he may be more likely to get to try out for the role. When thinking about whom to consider for an important project or promotion, someone who “looks the part” is more likely to come to mind than someone who does not.

This is about more than appearance. Styles of leadership either do or do not fit the historical image, which includes “leading from the front.” Someone who leads collaboratively may be seen as lacking leadership, despite great team results. A talented person who does not “look the part,” is more likely to be overlooked. There may be more focus on how this person acts than on actual contributions. The boss cannot imagine this person at the next level.

This unconscious mind-set underlies the reality – or at least perception – that men get promoted based on potential while women get promoted only by proving their abilities through accomplishments.

I do not believe we can eradicate our unconscious images. The goal is to make leaders aware of them so they can monitor their impact and make more enlightened choices in making assignments and promotions. Leaders can stop and check themselves. Am I considering this person for the promotion because he or she “looks the part”? Might someone who does not actually have better skills?

Have you seen examples of unconscious images keeping women back?