Do women in senior leadership help or hinder other women's progress?
I sometimes hear in my talks and in private conversations, both from men and women, that one of the biggest barriers to women's success are other women (see one sad story here). I personally have a hard time forming a clear opinion on this topic. I have had over 10 bosses during my professional career, most of which were men, and overall most of which were NOT great people's managers.
One of the two women I worked for was someone who initially opened the door for me in Tech during my university days. The other woman was someone who almost got me fired when I worked in banking. I remember that after working for her, I subscribed to the often-repeated mantra among banking women, that women bosses are "the worst." Until I had one male boss, who really was the "worst."
As always, I look to scientific evidence to help me be more objective. In "The Myth of the Catty Woman," Sheryl Sandberg shares some of the research findings about this topic:
A study of Standard & Poor’s 1,500 companies over 20 years found that when one woman reached senior management, a second woman would be 51% less likely to make it. BUT, it was not the woman in leadership blocking them, but a MALE CEO. When a WOMAN was made CEO, women had more chances of joining the executive team.
On corporate boards, despite having stronger qualifications than men, women are less likely to be mentored — unless there’s already a woman on the board. And when women join the board, there’s a better chance that other women will rise to top executive positions.
Women aren’t any meaner to women than men are to one another. We stereotype men as aggressive and women as kind and judge women harshly when they don't play the part. More on this in my previous note on unconscious bias.
A study among high-potential leaders involved in mentoring showed that women were mentored by 73% of the women but only 30% of the men. 65% of high-potential women who received support, paid it forward by mentoring others.
Yet women can still pay a price when they advocate for other women. A study of 300 executives found that , when men promoted diversity, they received slightly higher performance ratings. They were good guys who cared about breaking down the old boys’ network. When female executives promoted diversity, they were perceived as nepotistic — trying to advantage their own group and punished with significantly lower performance ratings.
Perhaps, the critical point of Sheryl's article is about cultural settings versus biological origins:
"Queen bees aren’t a reason for inequality but rather a result of inequality. In the past, structural disadvantages forced women to protect their fragile turf. Some of those disadvantages persist. Research shows that in male-dominated settings, token women are more likely to worry about their standing, so they’re reluctant to advocate for other women. A talented woman presents a threat if there’s only one seat for a woman at the table. A marginally qualified woman poses a different type of threat: “Hiring you will make me look bad.”
Where do we go from here?
In the discussion about diversity in leadership, people often tend to stick to the comfort zone of their individual experiences and assumptions about how the world works. I am very hopeful that if we start changing those assumptions and showing a better path forward, we can make work environments better for everyone involved. It's hard to change the traditional mindsets BUT, I am seeing a new generation of women leaders who are more aware and supportive of both women and men (see one such story here). It's our duty to join their ranks, support them and help them make it to the top in higher numbers.