Women are more likely to be appointed to senior positions by a female CEO

It has become something of a highly-popularised (and pretty damaging) assumption that women who reach executive positions pull the ladder up with them, and are much tougher on female colleagues than a male boss might be.

It is also, according to new research from Columbia Business School, a myth. This new study suggested that the the overriding reason for the shortage of women in top positions was actually male executives’ desire to retain control.

The study was shared with The Sunday Times and is due to be presented at the Girls’ Day School Trust conference of head teachers at leading girls’ schools.

It looked at top management teams at 1,500 companies across a 20-year-period and found that when women were appointed as CEOs, women were more likely to attain senior positions. The team at Columbia also pointed to another study which found female bosses pay higher wages to staff too (regardless of gender).

The academics also discovered that when a woman was appointed to a senior role that wasn’t the chief executive, the likelihood of other women following them to executive level then fell by 50 per cent. On further analysis, the researchers found the most likely explanation for the lack of women breaking through the glass ceiling was a desire among men to exclude them from the boardroom.

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“Women face an implicit quota, whereby firms seek to maintain a small number of women on their top management team, usually only one,” the researchers said.

They added that while businesses “gain legitimacy from having women in top management, the value of the legitimacy declines with each woman, whereas the perceived costs, from the perspective of the male majority in top management, increases with each woman”.

The study found that “the degree of resistance [by the male majority] appears to increase when a minority grows to as little as 20 per cent”.

This disputes past claims, including a 2011 study from Washington University, which suggested women occupying a minority position in a group of mostly men are more likely to view women as a threat to their status. The idea, dubbed the Queen bee syndrome in 1973 by Staines, Jayaratne and Tavris, pointed to women in authority positions who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female.

Tying in with the new research, former pupils of the schools represented at the conference are being recruited for a new mentoring scheme intending to help more women into executive posts. These include lastminute.com co-founder Baroness Lane Fox, former MI5 director-general Stella Rimmington, Labour MP Margaret Hodge and historian Bettany Hughes.

Former pupils will mentor ambitious women at three key points in their careers, according to The Sunday Times – in their early twenties when they start work, when they decide to start a family, and in their forties and fifties when they decide to pursue a top post.

This is an encouraging step towards providing more visible support for working women and making such initiatives a more common presence within the workplace. Not to mention the positive effect it could have on the long-term development of women’s careers. A pilot project found that mentoring prevents young women from leaving the workplace when they have children.

A company seen as leading the way when it comes to addressing inequality at work is Ernst and Young – and it too, has seen positive results from similar schemes. EY introduced a maternity coaching programme, including a “reboarding” processes for mothers returning to work, as well as Career Watch – a mentoring programme. The latest maternity returner rate for EY was 94 per cent in 2013.

The only slight concern over mentoring programmes like the above, is if they enforce certain expectations about where people should be at particular points in their lives. The advantages of offering specific mentoring at different ages is clear – though some for example, may want to aim for a top post at an earlier age. We do, after all, see plenty of younger males in executive posts, why not encourage women to pursue that across a wider age-range?

This is, of course, something that can be addressed when schemes are rolled out, and tweaks can always be made once they’re introduced. The important thing is making sure they come to fruition in the first place and encouraging businesses to implement similar ideas themselves. 

Additionally, if this research is right – there’s a fundamental reassessment that needs to occur among those occupying top positions in companies. Women shouldn’t be seen as an automatic quota – one that’s deemed filled after just one appointment of a female executive. It’s also clear that encouraging women to progress should be a matter of concern throughout the company – led by those at the top.

Image: Shutterstock

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