Are female execs holding other women back?

by Caitlin Nobes17 Jul 2012

Are female execs holding other women back?From the “boys club” at the top to the lack of flexibility offered – all kinds of factors are brought into the ongoing debate about why women aren’t making it to upper management. But new research has found female managers could be partly responsible for not helping their women colleagues.

Despite decades of lobbying and fighting for equality in the workplace, Australia has been slow to progress in increasing the number of women in senior positions over the last decade.

According to the study conducted by Olin Business School at Washington University, female executives are preventing other qualified women from reaching high-level positions, and many high-level women are the “token female” on an executive team and that’s the way they like it.

The study identified three reasons women were hesitant to help female newcomers:
 

  • Competitive threat – the fear that a highly qualified female candidate could be more capable, competent or accepted.
     
  • Collective threat – that a woman with lower qualifications will reinforce negative stereotypes.
     
  • Fear of appearing biased – leaders choose not to advocate for other women to avoid accusations of favouritism.

“Being the only woman who is a member of a high-status work group can produce a perceived threat of not being seen as a valued group member,” Michelle Duguid from Olin Business School said. “This threat is likely to underlie female tokens’ responses to other women as potential group members,” Duguid added.

As a result the researchers recommended that organisational leaders need to better recognise these potential threats and encourage female leaders to identify with other women in the organisation. “This may be crucial to an organisation’s ability to realise the potential benefits of diversity,” Duguid said.

However, just last month an alternative study emerged which offered contradictory findings. In a study by Catalyst, a body which lobbies for increased numbers of women in management, executive and director positions, it was found that women are more likely to mentor up-and-comers than men. The Catalyst research looked at women in a range of positions, rather than specifically the “female token” focused on in the Olin study.

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