Want a difficult job done? Ask a woman

by 17 Apr 2007

A LARGE number of business leaders will only appoint a woman into a very senior post in times of crisis and poor performance, and this leaves female leaders facing a form of hidden discrimination which leaves them more likely to fail than their male counterparts.

Recent research from the UK has found that women are more readily appointed to tough jobs that are perceived to lead to make-or-break outcomes in terms of career success, than men.

Further, business leaders are more inclined to open up job opportunities to women in crisis situations, leaving women business leaders at greater risk of failing than their male colleagues working a the same levels.

The research, commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and conducted by the University of Exeter, found that female leaders are all too often set-up to fail.

“Due to limited opportunities open to female leaders, many are forced to take the more difficult jobs in organisations with a history of poor performance, perpetuating the myth that women are poor performers in senior positions, and covering up the true extent of discrimination for the most desirable senior management positions,” said Dianah Worman, diversity adviser for the CIPD.

“But the growth in the number of successful small businesses owned by women goes someway to indicate their business and leadership capabilities and highlights the talent other large organisations are missing. So old fashion attitudes are not only unfair and discriminatory towards women but they leave organisations shooting themselves in the foot.”

It is in the best interests of business to take action to enable achievement rather than sitting back and hoping for the best, she said, and organisations need to be open to the leadership capabilities of women, regardless of the performance of the organisation.

“Being prepared in this way will give employers access to a larger pool of talent and enable them to select the best person for the job regardless of sex, and go some way to help organisations to avoid crisis situations or navigate them better when they do,”Worman said.

The report, Women in the Boardroom: the risks of being at the top, pulls research together from a number of sources.

It noted that company performance leading up to the appointment of a director differs depending on the gender of the appointee: for FTSE 100 companies that appointed men to their boards of directors, share price performance was relatively stable, both before and after the appointment.

However, in a time of a general financial downturn in the stock market, companies that appointed a woman had experienced consistently poor performance in the months preceding the appointment, according to University of Exeter researchers.

Furthermore, business leaders are more likely to select the female candidate when the company’s performance was said to be declining than when it was improving. A study of 83 senior managers found they were much more likely to see a female candidate as suitable for a vacant financial director role when the organisation was experiencing a marked downturn in performance.

Research findings also support the notion that “the glass cliff” can be seen as an opportunity, University of Exeterresearch found. In response to a scenario involving the appointment of a financial director, business leaders believed that a risky situation was seen to provide a male candidate with a much lower quality of opportunity than a non-risky situation. However, the opposite was true for an equally qualified female candidate.

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