Women and the Path to Leadership

Given the high percentage of women in the workforce (nearing 50% in the U.S.), it seems surprising that more women don’t occupy executive positions in our corporations. This is especially puzzling given research that indicates that bosses rate female leaders more highly overall than male leaders.

Explaining the discrepancy is not merely a matter of understanding gender stereotyping and perceptions of male and female leaders’ abilities. In fact, decades of research investigating gender stereotypes in leadership has yielded mixed results. Some studies found no differences in perceptions of male and female leaders, while others found striking differences.

As we mentioned in an earlier post, Eagly & Carli theorize that women face a different set of paths and obstacles to leadership than men do—a labyrinth rather than a ladder. Given the lack of a clear path, an organization looking to promote leaders among their female workforce will have to work harder to help women navigate this path.

Leadership Development for Women

The realization that many factors may be involved has prompted multi-faceted approaches to developing women leaders. Here are a few practices we have observed. All apply to both genders, but may need special attention when developing women leaders, to overcome the unique obstacles they face.

  • Promoting networking and mentorship. Development of relationships with role models and mentors is a key to good leadership development. However, this may be even more important for women than for men, given the multiple obstacles they face along the path to leadership.
  • Addressing organizational politics. Women are often less aware of organizational politics than men, and tend to be less willing to participate in it. This means that as women become leaders, they will either need to become better at recognizing and participating in organizational politics, or they will need to learn methods for working around them.
  • Projecting confidence. Research has found that managers more likely to select a protégé based on perceived ability and potential than need for help (Allen et al., 2000). This is key, as men are often more likely to be confident in their ability to project confidence, whereas women often deflect recognition and tend to share praise with coworkers.
  • Addressing issues of appearance. Research on the impact of a leader’s physical attractiveness continues to yield varied results. In general, physical attractiveness appears to be more of a factor for women than for men. However, even this is not straight-cut: women are penalized if they appear too feminine OR too masculine.
  • Addressing the minority While women are not a minority of the overall workforce, the higher they go in leadership the fewer fellow women they will find. Minority experiences often involve being set apart, held to different standards or expectations, or being made to feel as a representative for an entire group rather than an individual. As women move into this environment, both it and the implications it has for the organization need to be addressed

Research continues to illumine the complexities of the role of gender in leadership. For help addressing these issues in light of our research and global experience, contact us.

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