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Climbing the Executive Ladder: A Woman's Everest?


by Hannah Nusser, for SIOP

Research shows women leaders seen as more effective but still missing from the C-suite

Women now make up nearly half of the workforce, but strong gender disparities still remain in the upper echelons of organizations. New research by SIOP members shows the reasons behind this lack of women in leadership positions may be more subtle than just the degree to which they are perceived to be effective leaders.
At the annual SIOP conference in Chicago last month,  SIOP members Nathalie Castaño, a PhD student in industrial-organizational psychology at Wayne State University and intern at Denison Consulting, and Lindsey Kotrba,director of Research and Development at Denison Consulting, presented their paper, “The Glass Ceiling and the Role of Leaders’ Self-Perceptions,”* which explores potential reasons why, according to a 2010 Catalyst report,a mere 17.7% of corporate positions are occupied by women, and just 6.2% of top-earning executives are female.
In the paper, Castaño and Kotrba discuss recent research that examines two phenomena they thought could explain the gender discrepancy in the C-suite: gender stereotypes as a contributing factor of the glass ceiling and the effects of leaders’ self-perceptions on their success in the workplace. Their findings suggest that executive bosses perceive female managers to display more effective leadership behaviors and to be more effective overall than their male counterparts, leaving the authors with further questions about women’s career paths and why such a gender gap remains in the executive suite.
The study, conducted in 2010, focused on employees in midlevel leadership positions because this is the point in their careers that women tend to fall out of the race between middle management and achieving higher positions, Castaño said.
“It became clear that it was even more important to focus on the executive suite given that it’s at this level of an organization that you see lower representation of women,” Castaño said. “Something happens there that we lose all our women, and we have a big gender gap.”
Because promotions at the top seem to be less rigorous and based more on perceptions, the sheer number of male supervisors doing the promoting could be contributing a bias toward male-like leadership behaviors, Kotrba explained. According to past research, gender stereotypes maintain that women are more nurturing and communal by nature, and men are more agentic, assertive, and task-oriented, Kotrba said.
So when women come into this equation, they have this double bind,” Kotrba continued. “They need to act like leaders to be considered capable enough to reach those top levels, but at the same time, given their female gender role, they also feel the need to be more communal.”
The researchers surveyed all levels of employees, from direct report personnel to mid- and upper-level management, paying particular attention to what senior-level bosses perceived as effective leadership behavior. The 360 degree survey examined the relationship between stereotypes of men and women and their perceived effectiveness as leaders.
The study also measured the relationship between midlevel managers’ self-perceptions and others’ perceptions of their leadership abilities and effectiveness. Past research shows that men often overestimate their capabilities, and women tend to devalue their contributions to their success, Kotrba said. Results suggest middle managers’ self-perceptions affect how their bosses think of them.
“For example, I believe that I am really good at empowering others – this in turn impacts how top management perceives that I empower others, and in the end this impacts how top management perceives me as an effective leader,” she said.
Findings indicated women as being favored by their superiors; executive bosses perceived female managers to display more effective leadership behaviors and to be more effective overall than their male counterparts. Although self-perceptions had an effect on others’ perceptions of employees, gender did not play a role in bosses’ perceptions of effective leadership behaviors.
“With these results we would expect to see many more women in the executive suite than we see today,” Kotrba said. “What we were mostly surprised about is that if this is true – if women are perceived as being more effective than men and if top management has better perceptions of women than their peers – then why are we still seeing such a gender gap at the top?”
This suggests a more intricate and indirect pathway to success for women than men, Castaño said.
“We think that probably the reasons behind the lack of presence of women in organizations are more subtle than just the degree to which they’re perceived to be effective,” Castaño explained.
Organizations should use this research to be aware of the gender disparity between men and women in executive positions, Castaño said, and to be sure they are taking advantage of all their employees’ potential – male or female.
“Organizations are failing to capitalize on the talent in their female employees by maintaining such male-dominated management,” she said. “So for psychologists studying leadership issues, I think we have that responsibility to further investigate these issues and help organizations understand the harm that they can undertake by not capitalizing on this talent.”
In extreme cases, organizations that discriminate against women could see legal ramifications, Castaño said.
“Let’s look at the recent Wal-Mart case,” she said. “Pay discrimination is such an old topic. How long have we been talking about this, and it’s still happening?  We’re kind of hitting the nail over and over again, but it’s important. You may not see lawsuits over this lack of women in top management every day, but if and when they are successful they can mean large financial implications for organizations.”
Future research should focus on more subtle issues rather than basic assumptions and perceptions, Castaño said, such as “investigating the extent to which women are involved in work versus family – how does that affect their likelihood of being promoted or how that affects how others perceive them to be competent versus not competent.”
*This research was presented during the forum “Women and the Executive Suite: Perceptions, Experiences & Needs,” which took place during the 26th Annual Conference April 14-16.