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Although the number of women in management has doubled over the last 30 years, women are still underrepresented in managerial positions worldwide. For example, despite holding 37% of all management positions in the United States,1 women make up only 5% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. A comparison with recent data from Europe reveals a similar situation, with women holding about 30% of managerial positions and accounting for only 3% of CEOs in the top 50 publicly quoted companies.2 The situation worldwide can be characterized as follows: the higher the managerial level, the lower the proportion of women. Why is that the case?
This research-paper starts with an overview of the factors that have been identified to have an important impact on women managers’ success. We thereby define success as advancing up the corporate ladder. Our overview of the relevant factors distinguishes between individual level, organizational, and societal factors. In the next section of this research-paper, we focus on the business case for granting women equal opportunities for advancing to managerial positions and rising through the levels of organizational hierarchies. The discussion of the benefits associated with granting equal opportunities to men and women make it clear why organizations should make serious efforts to address the issue, especially since there is a shortage of skilled labor in the United States and in many other industrialized countries. In addition, it becomes evident why students of management should know and care about the topic. Finally, we make suggestions as to what organizations can do to redress women’s underrepresentation in management.
Factors That Have Been Found To Influence Women Managers’ Success
The vast majority of empirical studies on woman managers has focused on the question why women do not advance in management as much as men. However, more recent studies in fields such as management, sociology, psychology, and women’s studies, among others, have also examined which factors are beneficial to women managers’ success. This research-paper gives an overview of both the barriers and success factors for women managers’ success. Thereby we have divided the relevant factors into three major categories: individual level, organizational, and societal factors.
The individual level factors, also referred to as person-centered factors in the literature, focus on the characteristics of female managers. They include general individual-level factors, such as female managers’ human capital, perception of themselves and their abilities, personality traits, and the inclination to systematically plan a career. In addition, individual-level factors also comprise aspects of a woman manager that are essential for her interaction with others such as her linguistic style, assertion of self-interests, and leadership style. At first, we present the general individual-level factors, before discussing how female managers’ interaction with others may impact their career advancement.
A popular explanation for the gender gap in workplace leadership is that women’s human capital investment is lower than men’s. This argument is based on Becker’s3 logic that investing in human capital (i.e., education, training, and work experience) leads to knowledge, skills, and abilities, which then increase an employee’s productivity. This, in turn, is rewarded by an increase in pay and job status, resulting in upward mobility. However, a closer examination of empirical data shows that the simple explanation that women invest less in their human capital and thus do not advance to higher managerial levels to the same degree as men does not hold true. In the United States and many other industrialized countries, women now attain university degrees at higher rates than men do. With regard to obtaining bachelor’s degrees, this trend has been evident in the United States since 1981-1982.
Furthermore, the assumption that employed women are less identified with their jobs or less committed to employment than men is also disproved by empirical findings: Studies on the identification with various life roles show that employed men and women rank their role as worker similarly and both consider it subordinate to their roles as partners and parents. Comparing employed men and women in the same types of jobs shows that women are as committed to paid work as men and even report putting in more effort on their jobs than do men. With regard to human capital investments, there is an important difference between men and women, however: In spite of the fact that women invest as much in their human capital as men (e.g., by achieving higher levels of education and participating in training and development), men benefit more from doing so, as evidenced by numerous studies.
The difference in gains between comparable men and women include both opportunities for managerial advancement and pay. With regard to work experience, studies show that men generally need to work fewer years for the same company to advance to higher levels of management than women do. In addition, men gain more advantages such as increased training and development opportunities. In contrast, neither women’s tenure with the same organization nor their international experience brings the same benefits as is true for men. Along the same lines, studies have revealed that although female managers do not quit their jobs more often than male managers do, when they do quit and then obtain a new position, they are penalized more than their male counterparts are in terms of lost wages.
A number of empirical studies have reported that women tend to underestimate their actual performance in situations in which they are evaluated. Overall, male managers have been found to not only rate their overall performance higher than comparable female managers, but also to evaluate their skills and their intelligence higher than their female counterparts. This tendency to underestimate their own capability and performance may have a negative impact on women managers’ advancement in the long run. In concordance with this assumption, interview studies have revealed that a high percentage of female mangers (up to 50%) regarded lack of self-confidence as a barrier to their career advancement. Now one is inclined to ask what causes female managers to have lower levels of self-confidence than their male counterparts. Empirical evidence from the field of social psychology shows that men and women differ with regard to their dominant attribution style. In particular, men tend to attribute successes internally—they believe that their successes are caused by their abilities. In contrast, women are more inclined to attribute their successes to factors outside their person such as properties of the situation or mere luck. Overall, the typical attribution style of men facilitates their self-confidence since successes are explained by their abilities, and each success is therefore likely to increase self-confidence. However, this is not true for women, since successes are often attributed to causes the woman does not have control over.
Although their number is limited, there are some studies that examine gender differences in the links between personality and advancement in management. Overall, they found that the personality traits that are positively related with advancement are the same for men and women— although men may be more likely to possess these traits. In particular, masculinity (i.e., self-rated dominance, forcefulness, independence, and aggressiveness) is positively related to women’s managerial levels, as is the case for men. Recent studies show that both male and female managers prefer work cultures that emphasize traditional male values such as competition, effort, and work pressure over feminine work cultures. However, these studies leave unclear whether mainly women with a masculine orientation choose to pursue managerial careers (self-selection), if only women with this kind of orientation advance to managerial ranks, or if individual women’s orientations change toward a more masculine orientation as a function of their job as a manager.
Since women have historically been and in many cases still are faced with the decision between pursuing a managerial career and having a family, they have been found to plan their careers less carefully than their male counterparts, especially in the early years. Often, women do not focus as much on building up a career portfolio and a curriculum vitae that will prepare them for advancement to higher positions several years later. However, it seems that with higher proportions of women enrolled in MBA programs and other types of business education, this factor may be becoming less important.
Beyond these general individual-level factors, there also are differences between men and women with regard to their typical interactive style that are important for women managers’ success.
For more than 30 years, Deborah Tannen (1995) has been researching the influence of linguistic style on conversations and human relations. More recently, she has focused on the impact it has on others’ judgments about the speaker’s confidence, competence, and authority. Linguistic style refers to a person’s characteristic speaking pattern. It includes such features as directness versus indirectness, pacing and pausing and the choice of words, figures of speech, jokes, questions, and so on. In short, linguistic style is a set of culturally learned signals by which people communicate and on the basis of which they are evaluated by others.
According to Tannen’s (1995) analyses, the linguistic style that is typical of women often causes them to get less credit for their ideas and achievements. For example, women often speak in the passive voice or impersonal form. For example, they say, “it was accomplished” and tend to use the pronoun “we” instead of “I” when talking about their achievements, whereas the opposite is true for men. In addition, women are more likely to downplay their certainty, whereas men are more likely to minimize their doubts. One manifestation of this tendency is the fact that women tend to ask more questions (signaling interest, not lack of knowledge) and use words like “maybe” or “perhaps” more often than men. Unfortunately, men often interpret this as insecurity. Another potential source of misunderstanding between men and women is the fact that apologizing, mitigating criticism with praise, and exchanging compliments are rituals that are common among women but often interpreted as literal by men. For example, men may misinterpret feedback as completely positive, although it contained several areas for improvement, but these were stated after the positive aspects had been stressed. In contrast, ritual opposition is common among men but often taken literally by women. Men are likely to present their own ideas in the most certain way possible and challenge their colleagues’ ideas by trying to find weaknesses in order to help their colleagues explore and test their ideas. Women, however, may be more inclined to interpret the objections as an indication that the idea was poor or even take the opposition as a personal attack. Consequently, they may hedge when stating their ideas in order to fend off potential criticism—which makes their arguments appear weak and invites opposition. The problem with the differences in men’s and women’s linguistic styles is not that one style is generally more effective than the other, but that people in powerful positions—who are still predominantly male—are likely to reward linguistic styles similar to their own, and misinterpret those that are different.
Several studies show that one factor that adds to women’s relatively slower career advancement is their tendency not to assert their own interests. Whereas men are likely to ask for the things they find desirable—such as a pay increase—and to act in instrumental ways, women tend to hold the view that their performance will be recognized and adequately rewarded. Furthermore, women do not like to negotiate. A nice summary and illustration of empirical findings of this tendency is given in Women Don’t Ask by Babcock and Laschever (2003). For example, when asked to pick metaphors for the process of negotiating, men picked “winning a ballgame” and a “wrestling match,” while women picked “going to the dentist.” Furthermore, it has been shown that women are more pessimistic about how much is available when they do negotiate, so they typically ask for and get less than men. For example, men expect to earn 13% more than women during their first year of full-time work and 32% more at their career peaks.
Recent experiments have also provided preliminary evidence that women’s greater reticence as compared to men’s about attempting to negotiate for resources, such as higher compensation, can be explained by the differential treatment of male and female negotiators. More specifically, these studies showed that male evaluators are less willing to work with women who attempt to initiate compensation negotiations, whereas there is no effect for attempting to negotiate pay for men. Simply advising women to negotiate for pay and promotions therefore does not seem like a solution.
Another explanation that is often given for the underrepresentation of women in managerial positions is that men are more natural and thus more effective leaders. As we will see, there is no empirical evidence for this assumption.
Most information on differences between male and female leadership styles is based on research conducted prior to 1990, which typically distinguished between a task-oriented and an interpersonally oriented style. While the task-oriented style is defined as focusing on accomplishing assigned tasks by organizing task-relevant activities, the interpersonally oriented style is conceptualized as a concern with maintaining interpersonal relationships by tending to others’ morale and welfare. Another distinction employed by a smaller number of studies is between leaders who (a) behave democratically and allow subordinates to participate in decision making (democratic leadership) or (b) behave autocratically and discourage subordinates from participating in decisions (autocratic leadership). Overall, laboratory experiments and assessment studies using people who did not occupy leadership positions (e.g., students and employees) found that styles were somewhat gender stereotypic: women tended to manifest relatively more interpersonally oriented and democratic styles than men, whereas men were found to demonstrate a more task-oriented and autocratic style. However, sex differences were more limited in organizational studies assessing actual managers’ styles: The only demonstrated difference between female and male managers was that women adopted a somewhat more democratic or participative style and a less autocratic or directive style than men did. However, male and female managers did not differ in their tendencies to use interpersonally oriented and task-oriented styles. Do people react differently to men and women using the same leadership style? Lab experiments provide preliminary evidence that people react more negatively to women than men who adopt an autocratic and directive leadership style.
Recently, a new distinction of leadership styles has been developed to identify the types of leaders who are attuned to the conditions faced by contemporary organizations. Their emphasis is on leadership that is future oriented rather than present oriented and that strengthens organizations by inspiring followers, encouraging them to think creatively, and giving them opportunities for development. This type of leadership has become known as transformational leadership. Numerous studies have provided evidence that transformational leadership is effective with regard to followers’ attitudes and performance. In many analyses, this type of leadership has been contrasted with laissez faire leadership, a style marked by the leader’s failure to take on responsibility. Summing up the results of all studies on transformational leadership that had been conducted in organizations up to the year 2000, Eagly and her colleagues4 determined the following: Female leaders showed more transformational leadership and less laissez faire leadership than male leaders. In addition, female leaders engaged in more contingent reward behaviors (i.e., exchanging rewards for followers’ satisfactory performance) that have been proven effective. In summary, empirical evidence shows that women managers have a leadership style that has been determined by numerous studies to be very effective. However, future studies are needed to examine if the same leadership style is more or less effective depending on the leader’s gender, the follower’s gender, and/or the properties of the situation.
In addition to the individual-level factors just discussed, a number of organizational factors, also referred to as situation-centered factors in the literature, influence the likelihood of women being hired and promoted into managerial positions. Among these are personnel selection systems, the lack of female role models and mentors, the different access to networks, and several characteristics of the organization, including the number of female employees.
Empirical analyses show that the hiring of managers is commonly based on informal networks, not systematic personnel selection procedures. In addition, many organizations treat cases on an ad hoc basis—especially for top management positions—and do not keep records of the promotional process. However, studies show that formalized, open selection methods increase the number of women in managerial positions. In addition, preliminary evidence suggests that including more elements in the selection process that systematically assess performance, such as work sample tests, helps in diminishing bias against women.
Furthermore, empirical evidence suggests that the degree to which a firm’s human resources practices are formalized correlates with the number of women in managerial positions. Overall, it can be summarized that personnel selection and evaluation methods that follow formalized procedures allowing people to be judged on their (past) performance and not relying solely on others’ impressions and subjective evaluations of potential decrease biases against women. In concordance with this body of evidence, preliminary empirical results suggest that women are more likely to be promoted into managerial positions than to be hired into these jobs. Again, this may be because promotions depend on past performance and are based not only on an evaluation of management potential.
The substantially lower number of female managers and the extremely low percentage of women in top management positions automatically lead to a lack of female role models. Many young women aspiring to be managers point out that there are only a few—if any—role models they can look up to and model their behaviors after in their organization. In addition, large-scale surveys of female MBA students reveal that up to 90% believe that more female managers as role models would encourage more women to seek MBAs. Currently, women make up approximately one third of MBA students in the United States. Furthermore, since the majority of professors are also still predominantly male, women often lack the opportunity to experience women in leadership positions at all.
Mentors are often regarded as crucial for individuals’ career success. They can serve both instrumental (i.e., directly career-related) as well as psychosocial functions for the person they are mentoring. Among the instrumental functions are giving career support, coaching, providing challenging tasks, and helping the person become visible. The psychosocial functions include emotional support, guidance, and being a role model. Preliminary findings point out that people (both men and women) who have a mentor have higher career expectations than people who do not. Now, one may wonder if it is harder for women to find mentors than it is for men. Empirical evidence thus far suggests that women find mentors as often as men do and their mentoring relationships are of the same duration. However, as may have been expected, it is harder for women to find male mentors. This seems to be important with regard to women managers’ success since the most powerful positions are still predominantly occupied by men; in addition, studies from the United States provide evidence that having a (White) male mentor correlates positively with annual income. With regard to career success, it is thus crucial not to just have a mentor, but the right (i.e., powerful) one.
Recently, many organizations have introduced formal mentoring programs, in which junior managers are paired with senior managers in the same or in other organizations. Although this may be a good approach and helps in facilitating junior managers’ career aspirations, formal mentoring relations have been found to be less beneficial for the person who is being mentored both in regard to career support and psychosocial functions. In addition, overall satisfaction with the mentor, duration of the mentoring relationship, and the mentor’s motivation and function as a role-model have been found to be lower for formal than for informal mentoring relationships. Thus, we can conclude that formal mentoring relationships may be helpful but cannot parallel the effectiveness of informal mentoring. The question remains as to how women can find male mentors outside of formal programs. Establishing the right networks may be a useful step.
Several authors assume that the fact that women are still underrepresented in managerial positions can largely be attributed to the strong influence of established maledominated networks. In support of this assumption, empirical studies have provided evidence that first, male and female managers belong to different networks within the same organization. Second, although both groups receive comparable amounts of support from their networks, female managers receive their support from networks that are marked by lower levels of status and power. Consequently, the support male managers receive from their networks is likely to have a greater positive impact on their career development than is the case for female managers. Thus, becoming part of powerful (i.e., mostly male-dominated) networks would likely be of great benefit to women managers. Obviously, this is easier said than done, in part because in many countries prestigious clubs and societies do not accept women as members.
According to some studies, the majority of female managers regard the values, politics, and culture of the organization they work for as a barrier to their career development. For example, many female managers tend to think that if they are good at their jobs, others should notice and promote them. Thus, they should not have to make themselves visible, promote themselves or network with senior managers to build sponsorship. However, these behaviors are necessary for advancement in many organizations. In addition, many female managers report that they are in favor of an open culture that allows for teamwork and collaboration, instead of power games—which many perceive as dominating the culture of their organizations. Since more often than not female managers perceive a lack of opportunities to change their organizational culture, which can sometimes be characterized as a “macho culture,” they feel frustrated and discouraged from pursuing a managerial career. Overall, an organizational culture that facilitates cooperation, and an open exchange of information and merit should not only be beneficial for female employees, but also for the organization as a whole.
In addition to organizational culture, several objective characteristics of an organization can have a substantial impact on women managers’ success. Examinations of the effects of a number of these characteristics on women managers’ advancement yield the following conclusions. First, there is no evidence that the likelihood of women advancing in management is higher in larger, as opposed to smaller, organizations, even though it would seem that women would be more likely to be promoted in larger organizations since there are more managerial positions. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Second, with regard to promotion ladders, it can be concluded that when women work in jobs with many possible promotion steps rather than few, they seem to advance more.
Two organizational factors that have been found to contribute to women’s underrepresentation in management, however, are starting opportunities and the distribution of certain important positions. Empirical evidence suggests that in general, men are given more favorable starting processes such as being appointed at higher levels and on faster tracks than women, which results in their advancing more in management than women. A fourth, related fact is that high skill-level occupations and line positions (that is, in operations, not support areas) are more often held by men than women and have been found to offer more opportunities to advance in management and higher pay than other occupation and job types.
Number of Women in the Organization
Many of the negative experiences women—especially at higher levels—are faced with at their workplace have been attributed to the underrepresentation and thus the “token status” women have in many organizations. Studies report that women feel personally discriminated against to a higher degree if there are a low number of women in their organization and few women are newly recruited. Furthermore, the low representation of women at the workplace has been found to lead to a feeling of personal deprivation and stress, which may in some cases lead to women’s withdrawal intentions. However, several empirical studies point to the fact that a high number of women in management makes men in the organization feel threatened, which has an adverse impact on women’s advancement in management. Studies thus far suggest that there is a curvilinear relation between the number of women managers in an organization and the likelihood for other women to be hired or promoted to managerial positions. According to preliminary evidence, the “ideal” percentage of female managers in this sense ranges around 35%. Definite conclusions would be premature at this stage, though, since the empirical data are still scarce. Nevertheless, the phenomenon that the entry of women into male-dominated organizations often leads to the men feeling threatened has been documented many times.
The third category of factors influencing women managers’ success is societal factors, also referred to as systems-centered factors in the literature. In some ways, these factors are the most influential ones, since they not only impact women’s success directly, but also influence the previously stated individual and organizational factors, and thus have additional indirect effects. The most prominent societal factor is gender-role stereotypes, which are discussed here at greater length, because they have been found to be prevalent worldwide and influence women managers’ success directly and by means of organizational systems and practices. Other factors presented in this section (that are different from but still influenced by gender-role stereotypes) include management education and combining a managerial career with having a family.
Many empirical studies note that gender-role stereotypes are prevalent and have a substantial influence on how women managers are perceived. Scholars distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive gender-role stereotypes. Descriptive gender-role stereotypes are defined as the beliefs that there are differences between how men and women actually behave and what they are really like. For example, men are generally seen as achievement oriented or agentic (i.e., independent, decisive, forceful, rational), whereas women are perceived as socially oriented or communal (i.e., kind, caring, emotional). In contrast, prescriptive gender-role stereotypes are norms about how women and men should behave or not behave. Worldwide, women are expected to be concerned with the welfare of other people (nurturing, affectionate), whereas men are expected to have agentic or masculine characteristics concerned with being assertive, controlling, and confident. According to Heilman,5 descriptive gender-role stereotypes promote gender bias because there is a discrepancy between the stereotype of what women are like overall and the characteristics managerial jobs require. The discrepancy results in expectations that women will not be able to perform in managerial jobs or to a lesser degree than men. These expectations lead to negative evaluations of women’s competence, either through devaluing women’s work accomplishments or through attributing responsibility for women’s successful performance to causes other than their abilities. Studies have shown that the bias in the perception of women’s competence prevails even when explicit evidence for their leadership success is available. Generally, the gender bias described is increased when there is ambiguity about the nature of performance outcomes or the source of performance success.
Prescriptive gender stereotypes also have a negative impact on women managers’ success: when women prove to be competent and have succeeded at “male” work, they violate the normative prescriptions for women. This is followed by negative sanctions, in particular dislike of these women, which again decreases their chance of advancing in management.
A potential way of overcoming this barrier—at least when giving presentations—has been described by Carli, LaFleur, and Loeber (1995): While a woman who projects her competence in a purely stereotypically masculine manner runs a higher risk of social resistance than a similarly self-presented man, women can effectively convey their competence if they soften their stereotypically masculine competence with feminine niceness (e.g., smiling, nodding, and leaning toward listeners).
Numerous studies have provided evidence that the stereotype of a manager is very similar to the male stereotype (“think manager think male”) since both are seen as independent, ambitious, competent, and competitive. Schein’s (2001) research shows that this concordance of the male and the managerial stereotype was evident in the descriptions given by business students (male and female) in all of the five countries she examined. The only group that did not show this “think manager think male” phenomenon was American female students: they saw successful middle managers and women in general as similar.
A relatively new approach toward studying gender-role stereotypes and their effects on individual’s behavior uses the paradigm of “stereotype threat.” In this type of study, the female stereotype is made especially accessible to students by having them view female-stereotypic (vs. neutral) television commercials. Then in a subsequent procedure portrayed as an unrelated experiment, it is assessed how likely women versus men are to express their preference for a leadership role versus a nonleadership role. As would be expected, women but not men expressed less preference for a leadership role when stereotype threat had been induced (i.e., women had been portrayed in stereotypical roles in the commercials). These findings not only point to the powerful effects gender-role stereotypes can have on individuals’ behaviors, but also stress that the way women and men are portrayed in the media and in materials used for educational purposes should be under scrutiny.
As the studies on stereotype threat have shown, the way men and women are portrayed can impact the roles and responsibilities women choose. In the light of these results, it seems necessary to examine this aspect of management education. Several surveys of MBA students and female managers show that management education is still largely dominated by a male approach. For example, female students often remark that the examples used in class and the speakers invited hardly include women. In addition, female professors are still a minority. In general, it should be examined to what degree management education pro-grams meet the needs of all students, including women and minorities.
Combining a Managerial Career With Having a Family
Several empirical studies have shown that women take on the majority of household responsibilities and demands of children, no matter how many hours they work outside the home. Many authors have thus argued that the multiple roles of work and home women occupy lead to time limitations and interrole conflict, which has a negative impact on women’s advancement in management. The predominant patterns of marriage and children among men and women seem to confirm such propositions: Statistical evidence shows that most male managers are married fathers, whereas female managers are more likely to be single or, if married, childless. However, summaries of empirical findings have shown that most evidence does not support the view that women’s multiple family roles cause them to advance less in management than men. Reviews of the literature show that marriage and/or children were either not related to, or were relatively unimportant for, advancement in management for men or women compared to other factors. Furthermore, empirical evidence reveals that when male or female managers were single, they reached lower managerial levels and were paid less than when they were married, controlling for many other factors including age. In fact, some studies suggest that childless single men and women and single fathers advanced less than other family types. The results may be because employers allocate pay and promotions based on an individual’s perceived conformity. In line with this assumption, studies have reported that in the private for-profit sector, traditional fathers (i.e., those married with a spouse not employed outside the home) may advance in management more than other men, whereas mothers with an employed spouse advanced in management as much as other women.
Other evidence also does not support women’s multiple roles as the reason they do not advance in management. A review of the literature shows that the number, or care, of children is not related empirically either to women managers’ advancement in management or to men’s (at least in the United States). However, interview studies consistently reveal that women report lack of adequate child care as a career barrier and problems with child-caring responsibilities as damaging their career. This issue should therefore be addressed by organizations that seek to increase their number of female managers. There are many business reasons why organizations should do so, as discussed in the next section.
The Business Case
Proponents of equal-opportunities approaches usually argue that giving men and women (as well as other minorities) the same chances to advance in management is dictated by the laws of social justice. While that is true, we argue that there is also a clear business case for providing equal chances for men and women in organizations. The business case focuses on the benefits that employers accrue through making the most of the skills and potential of women employees. The basic argument is that the loss or lack of recognition of these skills and potential is very costly. Consequently, the business case is fundamentally linked to the principles of strategic human resource management, meaning that the full utilization of human resources is regarded as essential for a company’s long-term success. Furthermore, it is crucial that the initiatives designed to create equal opportunities are in concordance with the overall strategic direction of the company. Since achieving equal opportunities is essential to attaining organizational goals, equal-opportunities initiatives have to pervade every aspect of business policy.
The business case for equal opportunities is based on arguments that can be summarized under the phrase “Benefits of Equality”; they include
- larger and more diverse talent pool;
- best use of human resources in the organization;
- workforce more representative of customers;
- higher creative potential; and
- improved corporate image.
Larger and More Diverse Talent Pool
If organizations are truly open to hiring and promoting women (as well as other minorities) into managerial positions, the talent pool potential candidates can be recruited/ promoted from is significantly increased. Following the argument that talent and ability are equally spread throughout all groups, including men and women as well as all ethnic groups, selecting from this larger pool should increase the likelihood of finding a truly excellent candidate for the job. Furthermore, if hiring and promotion practices are based on qualifications and merit alone (and not on networks), this should automatically increase employee diversity which, in turn, increases a firm’s adaptability to new demands. In the face of rapidly changing new technologies and globalization, flexibility is essential for long-term business success. In addition, the United States and many other industrialized countries are facing a shortage of skilled labor or are predicted to do so in the near future. This development makes it even more important to be able to recruit and retain the best talent—regardless of gender.
Best Use of Human Resources in the Organization
Organizational systems and practices that ensure bias-free promotion and compensation decisions also allow for optimal use of the human resources that are available in any particular organization. When men and women are given the same rewards for the same performance, they are likely to be equally motivated. Frustration or turnover that results from unequal treatment is avoided, to the benefit of the organization. Women who may have left the organization because they did not perceive opportunities for advancement are now likely to stay and work hard toward the organization’s goals. This is an important aspect considering how high the costs of low productivity and rehiring are, especially for highly skilled employees.
Workforce More Representative of Customers
Another reason why organizations should be open to recruiting and promoting women into managerial positions that has been brought up frequently is the following: According to recent statistics, approximately 70% of all decisions to buy something are made by women. It is therefore important to understand how women think and feel if an organization wants to meet customer needs. The logical step therefore is to increase the number of women in the organization, especially in higher positions that are involved in strategic decisions.
Higher Creative Potential
Another benefit from increasing the number of women employees, as well as diversity in the organization in general, comes from the improvement in decision-making processes and innovation. As research shows, homogeneous groups are more likely to fall into the “groupthink” trap (i.e., all individuals think in the same way, wherefore risks are not carefully analyzed and often underestimated). In addition, the potential for creativity and innovation is increased when groups are diverse; admittedly the costs of communication and coordination are likely to increase as well. To ensure optimal group functioning and performance, it is advisable to compose groups of people who are diverse with regard to gender, talent, and background but who are committed to the same standards and follow the same procedures. Since sustained innovation is a major competitive advantage, not to say a necessity for survival in today’s rapidly changing world, the gain in innovative potential stemming from more gender diversity in management should be highly valued by organizations.
Improved Corporate Image
Organizations that provide men and women with equal opportunities for advancement are likely to receive indirect benefits, in addition to the direct ones. Among these is an improved corporate image. In today’s highly competitive markets where the quality of many products is often difficult for customers to evaluate, a good corporate image is a key competitive advantage. It may not only help in attracting customers, but also potential employees and investors. Since customers and investors are increasingly scrutinizing organizational practices with regard to fair standards and procedures, and many organizations have emphasized their corporate social responsibility, this factor is of substantial and still increasing importance.
Suggestions For Interventions
Organizations can use numerous interventions to increase the number of women in managerial positions. They can
- use structured, open selection methods;
- place women in or advise them to take high skill-level occupations and line jobs;
- provide starting opportunities for women (e.g., through initial placement on faster tracks);
- give opportunities for challenging assignments and management of others early in career;
- provide objectively structured processes to identify employees for training and development;
- provide structured and, as much as possible, objective selection and promotion processes to reduce nonmeritorious influences on advancement in management;
- provide women with career support (sponsor, coach, challenging work, visibility, male mentors, and career encouragement from senior staff) not merely emotional support; and
- use predefined, ideally objective measures of performance
In addition to these straightforward approaches, organizations in some countries, especially in Scandinavia, have used more controversial approaches toward increasing the number of female managers. For example, numerous Swedish companies offer compulsory training programs for male managers in order to increase their awareness of the under-representation of women in management, the costs this situation inflicts on the organization, and possible ways to redress the underrepresentation. Another, even more controversial intervention is the introduction of quotas. In Norway, for example, publicly listed companies are required to have boards with a female quota of 40% by the end of 2007. Although quotas are often met with hostility from business (and often women, too), they are by far the most effective means of increasing the number of women managers.
Directions For Future Research
As discussed in this research-paper, previous research has identified many factors that influence a woman manager’s career success. Although these studies have provided important evidence, a number of areas should be addressed in future investigations.
First, although many factors have been identified to impact women managers’ career success, it is not clear what their relative importance is and how these factors are related. Ideally, this issue could be addressed by means of large-scale longitudinal studies that examine the impact of a number of individual-level factors (e.g., human capital, personality) as well as organizational variables (e.g., organizational culture, promotion systems) on the rate at which men and women advance in management. Of course, these investigations would require a large number of individuals and organizations to participate for an extended time, but the knowledge gained would warrant the investment.
Second, research on women managers’ career advancement to date has focused mainly on the barriers, whereas only a few studies have focused on the facilitators. It seems that the inclusion of studies that provide evidence on how successful female managers made their way to the top would be extremely useful. Ideally, future studies following this approach would allow for conclusions on the impact of different contextual factors (e.g., branch of business or national culture).
Third, the question of how the number of female managers—especially at higher levels of the organization—can be increased should receive more attention in the scientific literature. While there are some examples of organizations that have established successful programs to increase gender diversity in management, a thorough evaluation of these programs is mostly lacking. However, investigating empirically which approaches prove to be useful seems crucial if organizations want to take the issue of increasing their number of female managers seriously.
Fourth, in the long run scientists interested in the topic should concentrate efforts on developing a model of women’s career success that integrates the barriers and facilitators and specifies the conditions under which certain factors are particularly relevant. The model should also serve as a framework for the design of interventions to increase the number of female managers.
Summary And Conclusion
Despite the large increase in the number of women in management over the last 30 years, women are still underrepresented in managerial positions, especially at higher levels. As empirical studies on this phenomenon show, there are still numerous barriers to women manager’s success.
The individual-level barriers include women not receiving the same rewards for investments in their human capital as men, women often being perceived as less self-confident than men based on their linguistic style, and women being less likely to assert their self-interests. However, contrary to the frequent assumptions that women are less natural and thus more ineffective leaders, studies have revealed that female managers in fact show very effective leadership styles.
In addition to the individual-level factors, a number of organizational factors influence women manager’s success. Among the most important of these are the methods employed for hiring and promoting managers. In short, when formalized systems and clear definitions of performance standards are used, bias against women is reduced. Part of the reason is the fact that it is harder for women to belong to powerful (i.e., mostly male-dominated) networks and have powerful mentors. Thus, if hiring and promotion decisions are largely based on informal networks, women’s opportunities are significantly diminished. In addition, an organizational culture that is dominated by power games instead of open communication and teamwork makes women managers’ advancement less likely. Since an organizational culture that emphasizes merit as well as collaboration instead of politicking should facilitate business results, a change of organizational cultures in this direction should be of benefit to all stakeholders, not only women.
The factors subsumed under the third category—the societal factors—are most influential for women managers’ advancement, since they affect both individual-level and organizational factors. The most important one of these factors is gender-role stereotypes. As shown in many studies, the typical role stereotype of men is largely in concordance with the stereotype of a successful manager, whereas there is a large discrepancy between the expectations of managers and the female stereotype. This “think manager think male” phenomenon has been found to have a substantial effect on the way men and women are perceived and is evident in numerous countries, both among men and women. However, a first study has provided evidence that these stereotypes may start to change—at least this was true among American female business students.
Why should organizations care about all this? There is a clear business case why organizations should aim at increasing their number of women managers. A larger talent
pool, better use of the human resources in the organization, better understanding of customer needs, greater creative potential, and increase in the firm’s corporate image should be compelling reasons for increasing the number of female managers. Interventions such as implementing structured objective selection and promotion processes and measuring performance objectively should be of benefit to all high-performing individuals in an organization and thus should increase organizational effectiveness. Providing equal opportunities for advancement to men and women is imperative, not only because this is fair, but also because it is based on calculating business logic.
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