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Debate: Coloured view explains disappointment women execs

Thu 07 January 2010

, Claartje Vinkenburg and Marloes van Engen, Free University & Tilburg University

How does one explain executives telling journalists that women in top positions are disappointing? Social psychology research shows that the explanation to this question can be sought in the phenomena that deal with social roles, our pattern of expectations of the behaviour of social groups such as men, women and leaders.

‘Women in top positions let down’, read the caption of a Volkskrant article on March 7, on the eve of International Women’s day[1]. The article presented the results of a study on the perception of women in executive positions among 40 (anonymous) executives. The interviewees are all ranked in the Volkskrant’s 200 most influential executives, and represent the so-called ‘gatekeepers’ who hold the boardroom key for women.
The article shows why women are still under-represented in the top of Dutch organisations and why this will remain so for the time being. The caption and the drift of the story illustrate how our perception and judgement are coloured by our expectations of men, women and leadership. But the story doesn’t reflect the possible gender differences in leadership. It rather adds to the (unintended) discrimination of women as (potential) leaders. So why did the surveyed executives make such utterances and why did the newspaper present and interpret the study in the said manner?

Gender differences?
The first question that should be answered is whether men and women are indeed such different leaders. Both scientific as well as applied international and national research show that women are equally good leaders and sometimes even better than men. Various meta-analyses, that statistically synthesise research on the subject, show little gender difference in leadership. The differences that are found, illustrate that women portray more effective leadership behaviour and that they are more participative and thus more effective decision makers than men[2].
What we don’t know is whether this is an inherent gender difference or a selection-effect, caused by the fact that only the most competent women make it to the top. Asides this, research also proves that a good male-female balance in top management teams goes hand in hand with better financial and innovative performance[3].
How does one explain executives telling journalists that women in top positions are disappointing? Social psychology research shows that the explanation to this question can be sought in the phenomena that deal with social roles, our pattern of expectations of the behaviour of social groups such as men, women and leaders. Stereotypical beliefs about what representatives of these groups do (descriptive) and should do (prescriptive) are deeply rooted in how we perceive and judge others.

Think manager, think male
The first phenomenon is ‘think manager, think male[4].’ When we (men and women) think of a manager, we think of masculine qualities (perseverance, dominance) rather than feminine (friendliness, helpful). There is quite some incongruence between the role of a manager and that of a woman, and the role of a man. This means that it’s in the first place harder for a woman to gain access to the role of a manager; and in the second place her achievements will be evaluated worse than those of a man - even if her behaviour is no different from her male colleagues.

Double bind
This phenomenon is directly tied to the previous – a woman in a top position (or with ambitions in that direction) is stuck. There is ‘double bind’[5] as, in order to be appreciated as a manager, she has to behave fiercely and competitively (masculine), but to be appreciated as a woman she has to be likeable and cooperative (feminine). If she displays too much or too little of either behaviour, she gets punished immediately and so she ‘disappoints.’
The double bind is reinforced when the woman is, or becomes a mother. This so-called ‘mother bias’[6] automatically makes her less competent than her male colleagues (whether they are fathers or not) and her female colleagues who don’t have kids (yet). The bias continues to apply if the woman works full time.

Glass cliff
The fourth phenomenon is ‘glass cliff’[7]: women are more often asked for high-risk top positions than men. ‘Think crisis, think female’, seems obvious here. Apparently people regard feminine qualities useful for fighting crises. But if the organisation fails to tackle the crises successfully, people tend to blame the woman who was put in the high-risk position. Consequently a woman won’t easily get a top job, because her predecessor was disappointing. When a male top manager fails, he isn’t judged incompetent for the job. But because there are so few women operating at that level, being a woman suddenly appears to bear risks.
Over 65 Dutch organisations have signed the Talent Charter (Talent naar de Top), aiming to have more women in higher offices. They have set targets and made policies to reaching these targets. But the mentioned phenomena could get in the way, if they are not recognised and tackled. Key figures and gatekeepers could play an important role here. Especially they can come up with solutions and set up guidelines to appoint and keep women in top positions.

[1] ur
[2] Eagly, A. H., Johannesen-Schmidt, M. C., & Engen, M. L. v. (2003). Transformational, Transactional, and Laissez-Faire Leadership Styles: A Meta-Analysis Comparing Women and Men. Psychological Bulletin, 129(4), 569-591.
Eagly, A. H., & Johnson, B. T. (1990). Gender and leadership style: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 108(2), 233-256.
[3] Krishnan, H. A., & Park, D. (2005). A few good women - on top management teams. Journal of Business Research, 58(12), 1712-1720.
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[4] Schein, V. E. (1989). The relationship between sex role stereotypes and requisite management characteristics revisited. Academy of Management Journal, 32(3), 662-669.
[5] Catalyst. (2007). The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t. Downloaded from
[6] Heilman M. E. & Okimoto, T. G. (2008). Motherhood: A potential source of bias in employment decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 189-198.
[7] Ryan, M., & Haslam, S. (2007). The Glass Cliff: Exploring the Dynamics Surrounding the Appointment of Women to Precarious Leadership Positions. Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 549-572.



Claartje Vinkenburg is associate professor at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, and managing director of the Amsterdam Center for Career Research also at the VU Amsterdam.

Marloes van Engen is assistant professor at Tilburg University where she lectures in Diversity in Organizations.