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Morons and Oxymorons: Undermining Women in Leadership

Morons and Oxymorons: Undermining Women in Leadership

Fifty years after legal changes in many countries ended discrimination on the basis of sex, many women are still being held back in their careers by stereotypical prejudices about the qualities required for leadership and their ability to fill leadership roles.

Here’s some advice for women jostling with men for space on the rungs of the executive ladder: “Don’t buy that grey trouser suit. It won’t help.”

The advice comes from Natalia Karelaia, INSEAD’s Assistant Professor of Decision Sciences, and it’s based on an extensive study of how women in corporate leadership roles fit – or fail to fit – with their male colleagues. All too often, she asserts, women leaders are trapped in an identity conflict created by stereotypes about how they should behave.

The stress of trying to live up to those stereotypes can weaken their performance, confirming negative views of women as leaders. Adopting typically male attributes like grey suits in such an environment won’t resolve the contradictions, she says, and may actually worsen the inner conflict between leadership identity and gender identity.

Instead, she advises stronger awareness and acceptance of the positive feminine qualities that they bring to their roles as leaders. “It’s not so much what you wear as how you feel about your identity as a woman that is going to enable you to succeed,” she affirms. “Having an appreciation of being a woman reduces stress and increases the chances of success.”

Positive efforts

That doesn’t necessarily mean following the example of English writer and explorer Freya Stark, who - on starting work in the early 1930s at the Baghdad Times - demanded of her male colleagues that they all stand up when she entered the room. (“Office women are to be thought of as queens,” she proclaimed. Taken aback, they complied).

But it does suggest that companies should make more positive efforts to recognise and develop women’s potential, both in their hiring and evaluation procedures and through mentoring programmes to help women advance in their careers.

There are sound business reasons for doing so. Though there are slightly more men than women in the world, women are moving ahead fast in many areas. According to OECD figures, 47 percent of women in OECD countries are now set to graduate from university, against only 32 percent of men.  Among entrants to Harvard Business School’s two-year MBA programme last October, 40 percent were women. 

And yet, according to accounting and consultancy firm Grant Thornton, only just over 20 percent of senior management positions are held by women at a global level. In its 2012 International Business Report, the consultancy warned that “a growing body of research suggests that such imbalance in the boardroom can be detrimental to business growth prospects”.

Seizing the baton

Citing a 2007 study by Catalyst, a non-profit organisation with a mission to expand opportunities for women and business, Grant Thornton noted that businesses with a higher proportion of women on their boards outperformed rivals in terms of returns on invested capital (66 percent higher), returns on equity (53 percent higher) and sales (42 percent higher). Another report, by McKinsey & Company, found that firms with higher proportions of women in leadership positions tended to perform better on stock markets than those dominated by men.

So why aren’t women seizing the leadership baton and taking more businesses forward to a profitable and successful future? Family obligations, including the bearing and raising of children, are often cited as the main explanation.

According to Karelaia, however, the causes lie much deeper, in stereotypical attitudes to gender and leadership that are deeply entrenched among both women and men. Success in a leadership role is often perceived as requiring assertiveness and competitiveness, attributes that clash with a view of women as sensitive and caring. Even when women want to succeed as leaders – and many are put off from even trying – they are often thwarted by the feeling that they have to suppress their female persona, she explains.

That’s definitely the view of Sheryl Sandberg, a former chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury who was appointed chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. in 2008, and who became the first woman on its board last year.

“We are all… judged and held back by very gender-determined stereotypes,” she told participants in a panel discussion on women in business at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year.  “The main difference between men and women in the workplace is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. As a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked… by women and men.” 

An uncomfortable burden

“Women get punished for violating the stereotypes,” echoes Herminia Ibarra, Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, who moderated the Davos panel discussion. “If you are competent and successful and you’re a woman, you’re not likeable,” she says. “If you are likeable, you are not thought to be successful.”

Since most of us, men or women, would like to be both competent and liked, that’s an uncomfortable burden for women to bear. In a survey of 638 women in leadership positions in a range of industries and countries, INSEAD’s Karelaia and co-researcher Laura Guillén, an assistant professor at the European School of Management and Technology, found that women who felt threatened in their gender identity found it harder to carry out their functions as leaders.

By contrast, those who succeeded best were those who were at ease with their gender identity.

“Our results revealed that holding a more positive gender identity reduces women leaders’ perceived conflict between their self-views as women and leaders,” they reported. “By reducing identity conflict, a more positive gender identity increases the joy of leading and decreases the sense of obligation to do so.”

Natalia Karelaia is Assistant Professor of Decision Sciences at INSEAD.

Herminia Ibarra is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and The Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD. She is also the Programme Director of The Leadership Transition, part of INSEAD’s portfolio of Executive Education Programmes.

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View Comments

Anonymous User

08/02/2013, 08.22 am

Re: quote above: "It has been factually established that most of the 'pay inequality' between men and women derives from the fact that women do different jobs, and work less hours - for example, in medicine, where there are just as many women as men - women disproportionately make choices such as Dermatolgoy whereas men opt for Surgery - in addition male doctors work measurably more hours than female." (typos not corrected)

See JAMA - June 13, 2012 where your biased anecdote has been factually disproven. When ALL factors were considered (marital status, child-bearing, grades, specialty, etc.) gender was the reason that equally or more qualified female physicians earned less than male peers.
INSEAD is so correct in promoting this discussion to move people like you from anecdotes and suppositions to perhaps open your mind to a fact-based reality.

- Dr. Lady C


Anonymous User

07/02/2013, 11.45 pm

"do" instead of "talk"? How about all the household chores, caring for the children and the elderlies? The fact that these activities are not valued in dollars doesn't mean that they have no value. And the numbers show that women still shoulder most of that burden: ever heard of women double or triple days? So they are already working doubly or triply hard.

- Vero


Anonymous User

07/02/2013, 02.42 pm

Men may outscore women in the GMAT, as it is mainly based on hard sciences which is traditionally a male domain, but women outscore men in social intelligence and this is not very much asked for to enter an MBA, but very much in the business world today. When do MBA's revise their entrance exams?

- Bill


Anonymous User

07/02/2013, 11.33 am

No doubt, stereotypes continue to exist, however, women are primarily held back because of the choices they make in life, and their attitudes towards their careers.

There exist very, very few people in business who would hire someone who is less competent because they are a man - to turn down a better qualified, better leader because she is a woman.

Specifically in Europe, the overwhelming attitude seems to be that education, 'time in' are qualifications for promotion, as opposed to actual ability to create positive outcomes.

It is rather shameful that INSEAD is participating in such a debate, taking the Politically Correction position, without initiating a more nuanced dialog with respect to the underlying issues.

It has been factually established that most of the 'pay inequality' between men and women derives from the fact that women do different jobs, and work less hours - for example, in medicine, where there are just as many women as men - women disproportionately make choices such as Dermatolgoy whereas men opt for Surgery - in addition male doctors work measurably more hours than female.

The women that I know that are successful are so because they are good at what they do - and they don't give a thought to 'gender'. Focusing on outcomes - instead of arbitrary political issues.

This is a serious subject and it needs to be addressed in an intelligent manner, not with vague socialist ideals, legislated upon business in a totalitarian matter.

Women need to consider the fact the market does not seem to be rewarding them for their endeavours - and that it could be because their output is not as valuable. This is the 'dark truth' that needs to be addressed by women themselves.

The era of 'legislated rights' is over - because women have all the rights, opportunities and special programs they need. It's time for women to step up to the plate and 'do' - instead of 'talk'.

I'll end on this final note:

Men still outscore women on the MBA GMAT test by more than 50 points. Why is this? Why are women falling so far behind men? Is it the 'fault' of sexism? Or is the fault of women not trying hard enough, putting in the amount of work necessary?

You cannot legislate GMAT scores - they do not lie.

When we see GMAT scores, business plan submissions for investment capital, business school applications, companies founded by women - start to balance the numbers displayed by men - then women would have a lot more credibility in claiming 'sexism' ... but until then, women should look in the mirror first.

In the meantime, we can focus on sexism, but it should not be the primary issue.

- James Schauer

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