Gender discussions in the workplace are becoming unnecessarily heated, uncomfortable and even avoided. The recent Google flap that resulted in a male technical employee being fired for voicing his opinions about gender differences, which were viewed by the company as contrary to their diversity policy, was unfortunate and avoidable.

New research reported in the book “Fresh Insights to End the Glass Ceiling” reveals the true reasons the glass ceiling exists. Surprisingly, they’re not what most people think. Thankfully, according to these findings, the blame game is no longer necessary.

The truth is that because the root cause of this problem has been misunderstood for decades, women in leadership development and diversity initiatives are, more often than not, missing the mark. The Teflon principle is at play here: We toss training, networking opportunities, mentoring and other actions at the problem, hoping something will stick. However, most of the key learning slides away. Usually, small takeaways are advanced, but the lurking problem remains unresolved.

While progress is being made in mid-level management positions, for women, reaching the top is inordinately difficult and, in some cases, impossible. According to “Fresh Insights to End the Glass Ceiling,” it has been almost 40 years since the U.S. Pregnancy Act passed in 1979, “preventing women from being fired for getting pregnant or from holding them off of succession plans because they ‘might’ get pregnant. Since that time, we’ve made little progress to the senior levels of leadership with only 5.8% of CEOs at Fortunate 500s today being women and just over 14% of women hold senior executive positions. Yet, over 60% of college graduates are women. If we stay on this current trajectory, it will take approximately 400 years for women to attain just 50% of the CEO positions.”

To get to bottom of this problem, research for the book reviewed:

  • Personality-based differences between men and women leaders
  • Cultural perceptions versus personality traits
  • The personality profiles of the women who have made it to the top

As many studies have, this research confirmed that men and women are equally capable of serving as leaders by way of their personality characteristics and inherent strengths. However, the research also helped look at inherent risk factors. Risk factors, as measured by the CDR Risk Assessment, identify 11 ineffective coping skills or behaviors that manifest under stress, adversity, conflict or pressure. These unproductive or ineffective behaviors can undermine one’s success, relationships and career progression. Women in the study group had statistically significant higher scores as “Worriers.” Meanwhile, the men had high scores as “Egotists,” “Upstagers” and “Rule Breakers.”

These findings suggest that women tend to suffer from a fear of failure or a fear of making a mistake. When the heat is on, women tend to freeze, study, overanalyze, hold back, and withdraw from engagement and debate. While they are moving away from conflict, their male counterparts are showing aggression by being pushy, loud and stubborn; being a “know-it-all”; and doing what it takes to be noticed and to get ahead.

The bottom line is that women are pulling themselves out of the limelight and away from needed visibility for upward progression. They become invisible by their own doing. Yet, the men are being judged as “leader-like” for their aggressive, forceful and dominating behavior, which appears more courageous.

While all risk behaviors are generally ineffective and can lead to derailment, men’s traits are viewed as more desirable for leadership positions – though their aggressive traits can be more detrimental to leadership than the worrying of women, in many cases.

In this research, it became clear that women are not only judged more negatively, but the fallout is much harsher than most people realize. For example, if a man and woman are both “Egotists” with narcissistic behaviors, the man is viewed as a naturally aggressive “go-getter,” while the woman is considered a “bitch,” a “dragon lady” and “nasty.”

Note the disparity.

The last part of the research dealt with women CEOs and other executive women who have made it past the glass ceiling. Remarkably, their risks were similar to the men’s group, not the women’s study group.

The key to solutions for executives, leadership development professionals, diversity experts and individuals is to develop women (and men) to have in-depth self-awareness. Develop them as individuals based on their strengths, risks, vulnerabilities and needs. Use an appropriate assessment instrument to accelerate and deepen the self-knowledge. Then, use these data to chart an individual developmental path. Coaching can go a long way as well, but generic training and leadership topic-focused training do not work. Acute self-knowledge is the first step and must be incorporated into all developmental training, coaching and action steps along the way.

Being a “Worrier” should not a be a deal-breaker for promotions. Using training, coaching and self-awareness, developmental inroads can be achieved for the women who worry.