Christians Brygge 28, 4.
1559 Copenhagen V
Phone: +45 70 23 73 83
By: Dr.Tara Jones and Mark Gittins
Tara is a distinguished sport psychologist who has successfully transferred her expertise to the commercial world. She combines a strong research and academic background with extensive experience coaching elite performers in both business and sporting contexts. Clients include National Grid, Microsoft Advertising, DSM Nutritional Products, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Sainsbury’s, Roche Pharmaceuticals and Deutsche Bank.
Mark joined the Research Team in 2003 on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) in conjunction with the University of Wales, Bangor. During the two year KTP project Mark developed the Lane4 High Performance Environment (HPE) Model and Scan and won a Best Projects Award. Mark is in the process of completing a part-time PhD on this subject area. Currently, Mark’s role is split between working as a Lane4 Consultant and his role in the Research Team. Mark’s research interests include transformational leadership, employee engagement and high performing organisations. Clients include Honda, DKIB, DSGi, National Grid, and Capita Symonds.
Many of you may be familiar with the so-called ‘glass ceiling’; a phrase coined to describe an invisible barrier to women being promoted beyond middle management. However, more recent research conducted by Ryan and Haslam (2005) at the University of Exeter has extended this analogy by showing that ‘glass cliffs’, rather than glass ceilings, are in fact the latest obstacle to women achieving success. They defined glass cliffs as “high risk or difficult jobs given to women in which the chance of failure is high”.
Specifically, Ryan and Haslam’s (2005) study showed FTSE-100 companies that appointed women had experienced consistently poorer performance in the five months preceding the appointment than those that chose male candidates. This meant, therefore, that the female board member was more likely to fail regardless of her skills. Ryan and Haslam (2005) suggested a possible explanation could be struggling boards looking for new ways to revive their fortunes by appointing women. Certainly women are often perceived to be better at crisis management. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that women were prepared to take on such problematic positions because they have fewer opportunities.
As if glass ceilings and cliffs were not enough to overcome, research conducted by Ashridge Management Centre (2005) has shown that women perceive stereotypes, and assumptions about what they would and would not do, as the most important factors that held them back in their careers. Eagly and Karau (2002) supported this finding with their view that incongruity between expectations about women (i.e. the female gender role) and expectations about leaders (i.e. leader roles) underlie the prejudice against female leaders. These authors base their explanation on Eagly’s (1991) social role theory of sex differences and similarities in social behaviour, which states that people perceive individual women as communal (i.e. showing warmth and selflessness) and not very agentic (i.e. showing assertiveness and instrumentality), and individual men as agentic but not very communal.
It is important at this point to realise that in such a topic it is diffi cult not to fall into an ‘essentialist’ way of thinking about all women as alike. We must remember that there are exceptions and that other factors play a part (Bryans & Mavin, 2003).
Despite the obstacles outlined above, there are women who have made it to the top in organisations. So how have they done it? Research has shown that women have some advantages in what is described as ‘typical leadership style’. In their review of 162 studies, Eagly and Johnson (1990) showed that women leaders tended to have a more interpersonally-oriented and democratic leadership style than male leaders, who were found to be more task-oriented and autocratic.
In a recent study, Eagly and Carli (2003) showed that women are also more transformational in their leadership style than men.
Transformational leadership involves developing, inspiring and challenging employees such that they go beyond their self-interest to contribute effectively to the organisation. Since transformational leadership has been shown to produce a number of positive outcomes for organisation, and is at the core of Lane4’s High Performance Environment (HPE) Model, it has been suggested that women therefore may have a slight leadership advantage over men (Eagly & Carli, 2003).
Certainly there is already evidence to support the business case for more women on executive boards. A report published by Catalyst, a research organisation working to advance women in business in the US, showed that companies with a higher representation of women in senior management positions showed a higher return on equity and total returns to shareholders. However, this fi nding does not necessarily demonstrate causality. Women are seen as having a more collaborative and people-centred way of working and it has been said that they are assets to businesses purely because they understand consumerism from a more personal point of view. It is these sorts of different qualities that are useful for ensuring diversity in board thinking.
It is also a common stereotype that many high-flying women in business have to follow in the “ballbreaker” mould to succeed. It seems women face a double standard here. Research has shown that women are reporting that they are adopting higher levels of assertiveness, dominance and masculinity (Twenge, 1997; 2001) and are also starting to value more of the same job attributes as men i.e. freedom, challenge, leadership and power. Women also feel that, because of doubts about their leadership ability, they are generally held to a higher standard of competence than men. In turn, this means that they feel they need to give clear evidence of their superior performance (Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1997). Despite this, women who adopt male characteristics and also demonstrate their leadership competence in a masculine fashion are perceived negatively as being insufficiently feminine (Eagly & Karau, 2002). It seems that in this respect, women must find a balance between assertiveness and femininity.
What does the literature say?
Firstly, when considering the characteristics of high performing women it is interesting to consider how they define success. Again there are gender differences here. Qualitative research has shown that women are more likely to describe what success meant to them with reference to internal criteria, especially accomplishment and achievement, and intangible criteria, in particular degree of challenge, satisfaction or sense of growth and development. Men, on the other hand, measured their career success by the position in hierarchy they attained. Also, women tended to have broader defi nitions of career success and felt more successful when they balanced their career with other aspects of their life (O’Leary, 1997).
It appears that women who have reached the top do not perceive there to be a glass ceiling and do not focus on obstacles in their path. This may be due to high levels of self-belief and positive thinking, as well as the way they approach their work.
Coline McConville, CEO of Europe for Clear Channels International reported that she got to the top by being assertive, never being afraid to disagree, and never taking no for an answer. This approach meant that she never encountered any gender-bias or any other obstacles in her career.
Self-belief may seem like an obvious characteristic for a high performer but research has shown that many women managers in organisations do in fact lack belief. This can lead to the so-called ‘impostor syndrome’, where women feel they will be found out or labelled as unworthy of the success they have attained or the positions they have won (Harvey & Katz, 1983). Another study has shown that women tend to rate themselves lower than male colleagues, and have diffi culty accepting praise from others (Rudman, 1998). It has been suggested that this lack of belief in women might be due to either their socialisation as females or as a reaction to male-dominated organisational cultures.
In their paper, ‘Women learning to become managers: Learning to fi t in or play a different game?’, Bryans and Mavin (2003) concluded that many women are continually engaging in a process of discovering who they are as individuals and managers in organisations, and are continually trying to find a comfortable place. This is important because research has shown that the development process for women in organisations can be different from that of men (Vinnicombe & Singh, 2003).
Men usually strive for autonomy and separation from others as a means of strengthening their identity and empowering others. It is only later in their development that they are able to see others as equal to themselves through increased intimacy. Women, on the other hand, typically take much longer before they can tolerate separation, and see themselves as equal to others.
Therefore, in order to ensure successful self-development, it seems that successful women in organisations need to make the correct decision on whether to try and change themselves, or the management practices of the organisation. Often they have to change both and it is the balance of change that becomes important (Bryans & Mavin, 2003).
Anna Catalano (formerly ranked as one of the most powerful women in international business) diligently managed her career by constantly reminding her bosses of her career ambitions and by refusing to be limited by others’ expectations of what women could and might achieve.
Successful women have also benefited from social support, whether it be from mentors at work or supportive husbands at home (Peopleclick Research Institute, 2000). This is again important in male-dominated organisations, as women have been shown to need different social networks to men i.e. those that are not a strategic social alliances. Bryans and Mavin (2003) explain that men see strategic alliances in a different way to women. Women want social alliances without the expectation of professional reciprocation.
Flexible schedules have also helped many women in their path to success. The long hours culture is still prevalent, and often women who ask for flexible or family-friendly hours are seen as being unrealistic or uncommitted to the company. Few people question whether these long hours are in fact necessary. This is the main reason why many women are starting up their own businesses. They are not looking for a soft option, as they are working just as hard, but are just after flexibility.
Apart from a lack of flexibility, the other main reason women are leaving organisations is their dislike of aggressive boardroom culture. In some cases successful women at board level have reported having to learn to tolerate ‘direct toughness’ and have recognised the importance of not holding grudges and taking the attitude that ‘it is about business and not about me’ (CIPD, 2004).
In 2005 five women, identified as high performers in the fields of sport or business, were interviewed regarding their experiences, and views on high performance. From the sports world, the interviewees comprised a former Canadian rower who won two Olympic Gold Medals, and a former Olympic, World and European Modern Pentathlon Champion. From the business world the following executives were interviewed; a Director of International SAP Employment, a Main Board Member from the Leisure Industry, and a Finance Director.
Some of the themes that emerged from these interviews are consistent with those from the high performing women literature discussed above. The ability to balance success with other areas was seen as being important by the women interviewed. Surprisingly there were few role models identified, but instead the women described several people as key influences, with parental influence considered particularly important.
The interviewees did not talk about many specific obstacles in their careers but instead focused on positives. When they did discuss obstacles, one of the interviewees pointed to the importance of recognising that she had a choice over how to deal with an obstacle- “(if I had) a choice to go round the obstacle, ignore it, or to move on, I would probably move on”.
When talking about their major successes, the interviewees referred to both tangible achievements, such as sports titles and financial growth, as well as people-related achievements such as learning a transformational approach to their leadership, and receiving good feedback from their employees. Lane4’s perspective on a transformational approach emphasises the importance of leaders providing their people with an appropriate balance of vision, support, and challenge, In the current research, the women interviewed also highlighted the importance of “making people feel special” as an important leadership quality.
Interestingly, the high performing women interviewed internalised a lot of their behaviours and realised that they were the starting point for their successes. One quote was “nobody owes me anything. If you want anything, go and get it”.
The women valued themselves and their own contributions, and were constantly asking themselves “what can I do to make things better?” These behaviours were driven by intrinsic motivation, shown by quotes referring to how they felt about their work such as “I love it”, “real desire” and “passionate about it”.
In terms of specific attributes, the women interviewed were self-driven, had positive mindsets and were prepared to put in long hours if needs be. These attributes are not particularly surprising. What really stood out was that they were extremely proactive. They were always trying to make things happen. They also were able to communicate at all levels and to take a step-back and see the big picture, rather than get too caught up in unnecessary detail. They also genuinely cared about the people they worked with and were considerate to those around them. This reinforces the idea that you do not have to be aloof or a ball-breaker to reach the top within an organisation. Finally they were always looking to develop, whether through one-toone coaching or by learning from those around them.
All of the women interviewed recognised the importance of having the right environment in place for success; one in which they can “thrive in”. They talked about an environment in which there is good communication flow, supportive feedback, social support networks such as the “women’s network” and in which job satisfaction is key. They all recognise the importance of having people around you that have belief in you. However, it seems that the environment also needs a degree of challenge to it in terms of people feeling positively competitive and in which they feel everything they do is contributing i.e. a sense of higher purpose.
There is evidence that women face certain obstacles when trying to reach the top within organisations. These obstacles seem to be exacerbated in male-dominated cultures, and include gender-related discrimination and stereotypes regarding what they will and can do at work. However, it appears that if women have the right mental approach then these obstacles can be removed or substantially reduced. The high performing women, described in the literature and interviewed as part of the Lane4 research, have approached their work in such a way that they do not perceive encountering any (or hardly any) obstacles or discrimination. Several of the characteristics they have (i.e. belief in ability, thriving on pressure, focusing on career, and internalised motives to succeed) are components of mental toughness, as defi ned by Jones, Hanton & Connaughton (2002). So, it appears that mental toughness is important, which would make sense in today’s turbulent and competitive economic climate.
Overall, Lane4’s advice to women is as follows:
• Have the confi dence to be yourself-remember what you have achieved and how you got there
• Succeed for yourself, not for other people
• Be proactive and ask for what you want
• Recognise that you have a choice
• Network-to gain the social support you need
• Be visible-don’t just succeed but let people know about it
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Bryans, P., & Mavin, S. (2003). Women Learning to Become Managers: Learning to Fit In or to Play A Different Game. Management Learning, 34 (1), 111-134.
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2004). Women in the Boardroom: a Bird’s Eye View. London, CIPD Library control code: B64184.
Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2003). The Female Leadership Advantage: An Evaluation of the Evidence. The Leadership Quarterly, 14, 807-834.
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