New research conducted by the leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman and authored by Bob Sherwin shows women scored higher than men on twelve of sixteen leadership competencies at all levels of management, including the executive level. So why is it that, worldwide, only 3–4 percent of CEOs are women? Two key reasons why women continue to experience a glass ceiling at senior levels are
- The persistence of negative stereotypes about deficiencies in women’s leadership capabilities despite more and more data showing the inaccuracy of these stereotypes.
- Second-generation bias, defined by Debra Kolb and Jessica Porter in their new book, Negotiating at Work, as, “an organization’s policies and practices that appeared gender neutral [but] could have unintended but differential impacts on different groups of men and women.”
About This StudyThe sample for the Zenger Folkman study included the 360-degree feedback data for 16,000 leaders in a wide variety of industries. Two-thirds of the leaders in the study were male and one-third female. All participants had feedback from their managers, direct reports, and peers.
Research FindingsWomen scored higher than men on twelve of sixteen leadership competencies measured by the 360-degree feedback assessment, and ten of these differences were statistically significant. One surprise in the findings was that while most people polled by the researchers assumed that women would excel in the nurturing competencies (developing others, inspiring and motivating others, relationship building, collaboration, and teamwork), in fact, these were not the strongest scores for the women. The largest positive differences for women were in taking initiative, displaying integrity and honesty, and driving for results. Women also outperformed men in the nurturing competencies, but their strongest scores were in getting tasks done and delivering results—counter to some negative stereotypes about women leaders. These results held up across functions usually considered traditionally male, such as sales, legal, engineering, IT, and R and D. The study’s author notes, “Only in facilities management and maintenance do [women] not do well.” Also, the higher the women rose to the executive level, the more positively they were perceived. I think it is significant that this last finding is based on feedback from people who actually knew and worked with the leaders. In contrast, the “likeability” literature, reviewed in my previous blogs, seems to show conflicting results when women advance, but that research is based on hypothetical leaders described in case studies and may not be as meaningful as the findings reported here.
How to Chip Away at Negative Stereotypes
- Be informed. Keep a file of articles with research showing positive findings about women in organizations. In addition to the information reported here about women being better leaders, I have written in previous blogs about other positive research findings, including
- Men are more confident, but women are more competent.
- When women lead, performance improves.
- Start-ups led by women are more likely to succeed.
- Innovative firms with more women in top management are more profitable.
- Companies with more gender balance have more revenue.
- Inform others. Circulate articles reporting positive data on women that challenge existing stereotypes and help make the case for promoting women. Make sure to include your boss on the list you send information to, and bring it up with her or him from time to time. This can help your boss justify fighting for an opportunity for you behind closed doors.
- Join with others. Join with other women and men who want to identify the second-generation bias in the policies and practices in your organization and raise them up for scrutiny and change. Second-generation bias, as described by Kolb and Porter, is unintentional and invisible, but can create significant barriers for women and other nondominant groups. You can work with others to make biases visible and open a pathway to change.