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Developing Women Leaders

Tom Giberson
Oakland University
Suzanne Miklos
OE Strategies

Suzanne: As a practitioner, it is helpful to be able to talk about issues critical to clients with my academic friends who help me monitor new research that links to practitioner work. For example, I am working on a leadership development project and the organization is interested in developing programming specifically for female leaders. The observation in the company is that there are many women in the middle management ranks but relatively few in the senior leadership roles. They are interested in understanding what the current research in our field shows.  It seems that more women should be progressing up the ranks.

As we were examining the business case for such work, I remembered an article that I read this summer. Cook and Glass (2011) published an interesting article in Human Resource Management in which they found a positive increase in stock price attributed to institutional investor reactions to news of a female leader being promoted into senior management. The research examined fluctuations over a 3-day period associated with an announcement of an appointment of a key c-suite-level leader. The goal was to determine if the market reaction was different based on the gender of the leader.

Women hold many more CEO positions than in the past, yet at single digits, are still not represented in the numbers that might be expected given that one-third of all managers in private industry are women. The article also points out the trend of internal corporate decisions being made with a consideration of the marketplace reactions. The impact of succession decisions on stock price is a factor for boards and CEOs, making it worthwhile to know the differential impact of a male versus a female placement into a top role.

Interestingly, the overall data suggest that the announcement of a top female leader has a positive initial impact on stock price, suggesting that a female leader is seen as positive news by investors (Cooke & Glass, 2011). This was counter to the authors’ hypothesis and suggests that there was not an automatic, unconscious negative reaction to the appointment. However, when the nature of the industry was considered, the results varied depending upon whether the industry was considered male or female-dominated. Specifically, a woman promoted to a c-level role had a positive impact on stock price in female-dominated industries, but a small, negative impact on stock price in male-dominated industries.

Tom: As an academic and practitioner, I really enjoy working with practitioners like Suzanne who seek out what scholars are learning and apply that to professional practice. Suzanne identified some data that suggests stock prices can be influenced by the appointment of women to leadership roles; however, what about current research regarding how workers think about their male and female leaders?

Elsesser and Lever (2011) recently published the results of a large-scale qualitative and quantitative study on the subject of gender bias in the workplace. Their study consisted of 60,470 direct reports who were asked a variety of questions with regard to the sex of their manager, their competence levels, preference for men or women as leaders, the reasons for their preferences, and a variety of other quantitative and qualitative items.

The results of their study confirm some of the historical findings (and everyday experiences of many women, no doubt) and also provide evidence for declining bias toward female managers. For example, when evaluating their own boss, participants demonstrated very little bias whether their boss was a man or woman. However, when asked more broadly with regard to their “ideal leader,” 54% indicated no preference, 13% preferred women, and 33% preferred men. Together, these results seem to suggest that exposure to a specific person (woman) in a leadership role virtually neutralizes bias against that woman in such a role but does not necessarily translate to reduced bias more globally against women in leadership roles.

The results also replicate previous findings which indicated a cross-sex preference in leadership roles, wherein a small but meaningful segment of the participants preferred opposite-sex leaders (similar to findings by Rose and Stone [1978] and Schieman and McMullen [2008]). The authors point to same-sex competitiveness behavior to explain these results. The results also seem to contradict other findings that suggest competent female leaders are seen as less likable than competent male leaders (cf. Catalyst, 2007), as no relationship quality differences were found based upon the perceived competence of either-sex leader. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the results suggest an increasing preference for stereotypical female leadership characteristics (e.g., sensitive, supportive, caring) versus. more stereotypical male leadership characteristics (e.g., direct, forceful).

Although the results of this study certainly do not negate the bias and stereotype experiences of many women in the workplace, they do suggest progress toward gender-neutral perceptions of leaders in the workplace. In practical terms, the results suggest that women might be most likely not to experience bias or prejudice against them when others know them. Therefore, hiring managers could benefit from awareness training to ensure they consider male and female candidates free of unintended bias. In the case of career progression within an organization, we can point to this research as positive news for our women that, we hope, is tangible to their own experience.  Once women are a known talent in the organization, bias from direct reports may be less of factor.

Suzanne and Tom: As we look at how organizations can support the career progress of female managers, we can turn to a recent Academy of Management article focused on considering gender in designing programs for women (Ely, Insead & Kolb, 2011). The article describes several key principles. The authors start with the premise that leadership development is identity work. Gender-oriented approaches must focus on the matching of a female leader’s identity to leadership roles and tasks.  They point out that women account for only 2.2% of Fortune 500 CEO roles. This scarcity of top-level women implies that the role models for female leadership are not plentiful. Second-generation gender bias is described as subtle bias stemming from cultural beliefs about gender, as well as structure, practices, and patterns of interactions. This subtle bias can interfere with women seeing themselves and being seen by others as leaders. If, as recent research suggests, building and taking on the identity of a leadership role is central to becoming a leader, women do not have the existing models to see and be seen as senior leader women. Leadership identity work involves two core tasks: internalizing a leader identity and developing an elevated sense of purpose. Internalizing a leader identity is done through social processes in which the accumulated interactions and feedback informs and strengthens the sense of self as leader.

The article also provides a set of tools that can be leveraged within the framework of helping women leaders build their identities. For example 360 degree feedback and coaching processes can remove the barrier of insufficient and double bind feedback. The results of a 360 feedback process can educate the managers of women and combat the tendency for women to be rated lower than male counterparts in terms of long-term potential.

Networking can be leveraged to equip women to build and leverage effective networks that take into account their tendency to have less access and less depth to their networks. Negotiation, leading change, and career transitions are also addressed. As an example, women are more likely to get stuck in informal roles and miss out on key opportunities. One example the authors provided is taking on an informal problem-solving or project-management function to support the team, thus missing out on being available for more strategic activities and tasks.

There is an opportunity to inform decision makers and leader development programs with objective data. As I-O professionals we bring research as our lens. We may suggest leadership development programming that provides mentoring to our up and coming female leaders, focusing specifically on gaining feedback and building effective networks.  As more people know the high-potential women within their company, any preference based on gender will be neutralized. We should also do more longitudinal tracking of the careers of our women in midlevel leadership to understand our own data on promotions and retention. 

We would like to see additional research done on key experiences, such as leading a turnaround or an acquisition, that become informal selection criteria at general management levels.  For example, commercial experience is critical in some banking environments, yet many women come up through retail. Researching trends and experience factors that lead to being viewed as promotable would be of great benefit to practitioners.


Catalyst. (2007). The double-bind dilemma for women in leadership: Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t. Available at: http:/www.catalystwomen.org/publications/83/the-double-bind-dlimma-for-women-in-leadership-damned-if-you-do-doomed-if-you-don’t
Cook, A. & Glass, C. (2011).  Leadership changes and shareholder value: How markets react to the appointment of women.  Human Resource Management, 50, 501–519.
Elsessor, K. M., & Lever, J. (2011). Does gender bias against female leaders persist? Quantitative and qualitative data from a large-scale survey. Human Relations 64, 1555–1578.
Ely, R., Insead, H., & Kolb, D. (2011). Taking gender into account: Theory and design for women’s leadership development programs. Academy of Management Learning and Education. 10(3): 474–493.
Rose, G. L., & Stone, T. J. (1978).  Why good job performance may (not) be rewarded: Sex factors and career development. Journal of Vocational Behavior 12, 197–207.
Schieman, S., & McMullen, T. (2008). Relational demography in the workplace and health: An analysis of gender and the subordinate–superordinate role-set. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 49, 286–300.