When it comes to their character and their intelligence, men and women are seen as different but equally capable. We get the same finding when it comes to overall leadership impact: men and women are seen as different yet equally capably. But when it comes to future potential, men are seen as having higher future leadership potential than women. And this picture holds good irrespective of whether it is a man or a women who is doing the judging of potential.

This paper explores what lies behind this strange situation: why do men and women judge men to have higher future potential, despite men having no greater strengths and being of no more impact as leaders?

We will see that organisations can fall into the trap of inadvertently creating sets of leadership expectations that are inherently ‘gendered’: biased towards areas where men are typically seen as stronger. This kind of gendered framework forms a part of what is described as ‘second generation gender bias’ – where discrimination is not overt yet is still a powerful force. More than this, we will see that for some of these areas where men are seen as stronger, there is no good evidence that men actually are stronger, and indeed compelling evidence that both men and women suffer from deeply rooted perceptual biases.

The implications for Talent review and appointment processes are significant. Putting women on the Board and on Appointments Committees is unlikely to do much, because the evidence in this paper is that women unconsciously share in the same gender biases as do men. Talent practitioners need to develop a more sophisticated ability to surface the criteria that are implicitly guiding judgements about future potential, and need to be aware of how gender biases (shared by both men and women) in the judgement of these criteria will cause gender differences to endure.

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