Women leaders make work better. Here’s the science behind how to promote them
Women leaders make work better. Here’s the science behind how to promote them
When more women are empowered to lead, everyone benefits. Decades of studies show women leaders help increase productivity, enhance collaboration, inspire organizational dedication, and improve fairness.
Despite these benefits, only 10% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. How can businesses create more opportunities for women in leadership spaces using psychological science?
Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists offer a host of evidence-backed strategies for helping close the gender gap. These include earlier identification of leadership potential, training for men and others already in power to serve as allies, and formal mentoring and sponsorship programs.
“Even in 2023, women still face challenges to their authority and success that are greater than those faced by their male counterparts,” said Alice Eagly, PhD, a professor of psychology emerita at Northwestern University and pioneer in researching women’s leadership. “However, despite these difficulties, women are slowly rising in political leadership and in corporate and educational leadership.”
What happens when women lead
Decades of psychological research confirm when women are empowered to take on leadership positions, the effects can be metamorphic for everyone.
- Female leaders demonstrate more transformational leadership styles, according to a landmark 1992 meta-analysis of 61 studies led by Eagly. They are more likely to epitomize what’s good in the organization and inspire people to go along with its mission, compared with men, study results show.
- Women are now seen as equally or more competent as men, finds a 2020 meta-analysis led by Eagly. The study included data from 16 nationally representative public opinion polls involving more than 30,000 U.S. adults from 1946 to 2018. The researchers looked at three types of traits—communion (i.e., compassion, sensitivity), agency (i.e., ambition, aggression), and competence (i.e., intelligence, creativity)—and whether participants thought each trait was truer of women or men or equally true of both.
Results showed that competence stereotypes changed dramatically over time. For example, in one 1946 poll, only 35% of those surveyed thought men and women were equally intelligent, and of those who believed there was a difference, more thought men were the more competent sex. In contrast, in one 2018 poll, 86% believed men and women were equally intelligent, 9% believed women were more intelligent, and only 5% believed men were more intelligent. Further, communal stereotypes viewing women as more compassionate and sensitive than men strengthened over time.
- Team collaboration is greatly improved by the presence of women in the group, an effect that is primarily explained by women’s benefits to group processes, according to a 2010 study. In two studies with 699 people, organizational psychologist Anita Williams Woolley, PhD, and her colleagues examined working groups of two to five people and found the proportion of women in a group was strongly related to the group’s collective intelligence, which is their ability to work together and solve a wide range of problems. Groups with more women exhibited greater equality in conversational turn-taking, further enabling the group members to be responsive to one another and to make the best use of the knowledge and skills of members.
- Women rank better than or equal to men in seven of eight traits relevant to leadership assessed in a 2008 national survey by the Pew Research Center. Half of the respondents ranked women as more honest than men, with 20% saying that men are more honest than women. In terms of intelligence, 38% said they viewed women as smarter, with only 14% indicating men are smarter. Women were also ranked as being more compassionate, outgoing, and creative.
- The mere presence of a female leader relative to a male leader led perceivers to anticipate fairer treatment in that organization and greater projected salary and status, according to a 2022 study led by social psychologist Mansi P. Joshi, PhD. Female leaders cued organizational trust in both male- and female-dominated industries and when they occupied different levels of the organizational hierarchy.
- Appointing women to the top tiers of management can even help mitigate deep-rooted stereotypes that are expressed in language, suggests a 2022 study. Researchers used natural language processing techniques to analyze more than 43,000 shareholder documents and investor calls from 33 male- and female-led S&P 500 organizations and found that hiring female chief executive officers and board members was associated with changes in organizations’ use of language by helping to associate women with characteristics that are critical for leadership success. “Our findings suggest that female representation is not merely an end, but also a means to systematically change insidious gender stereotypes and overcome the trade-off between women being perceived as either competent or likeable,” study authors wrote.
Slow but steady progress
Thanks to ongoing efforts to promote gender equality in the workplace, female leaders are slowly making inroads in business, Congress, higher education, and in the field of psychology. Despite these bright spots, the proportion of male and female leaders is still far from equal. It’s a refrain that’s been sounded for years by psychology leaders, including the late Jean Lau Chin, EdD, the first Asian American psychologist to be licensed in the state of Massachusetts, and a pioneer in advocating for more diversity in leadership.
“Getting a seat at the table is not enough,” Chin proclaimed in a 2016 TEDx Talk. “It’s time for women and diverse leaders to be at the head of the table in leadership roles if we’re going to have a future moving forward together.”
Many women experience bias not only as a result of gender but also due to race, sexual orientation, a disability, or other aspects of their identity. Latinas and Black women are less likely than women of other races and ethnicities to report their manager supports their career development, according to a 2022 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company.
They also experience less psychological safety. McKinsey’s report found that Asian women and Black women are less likely to have strong allies on their teams. They are also less likely than White women to say senior colleagues have taken important sponsorship actions on their behalf, such as praising their skills or advocating for a compensation increase for them. In addition, LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities report experiencing more demeaning and alienating microaggressions. Compared with women overall, they’re more likely to have colleagues comment on their appearance or tell them that they “look mad” or “should smile more.”
What can organizations do to help advance more women into leadership?
Science points to a series of steps organizations and individuals can take to help close the leadership gender gap.
Identify potential leaders early. One promising approach is the earlier identification of leadership potential, says Anna Marie Valerio, PhD, an executive coach and adjunct professor of psychology at New York University. This includes enabling potential leadership candidates to obtain a wealth of feedback at an early point in their careers, through assignments, mentoring, and coaching, all of which may allow them to develop their networks and demonstrate their ability to take on greater responsibilities.
“Giving women key experiences early in their careers helps give them the runway to be able to develop themselves and excel and go as far as their skills and abilities and motivation will take them,” said Valerio, author of the 2009 book Developing Women Leaders: A Guide for Men and Women in Organizations.
Establish mentorship programs that also focus on sponsorship. A host of studies tout the benefits of successful mentoring programs, including greater career success for individuals and higher levels of employee engagement, retention, and knowledge-sharing for organizations.
When it comes to mentors, however, it’s important that women seek out both mentors, who can provide career guidance, support, feedback, and knowledge, as well as sponsors, who go beyond the role of mentor and use their position and influence to proactively advocate for a junior employee’s advancement, says I/O psychologist Victoria Mattingly, PhD, founder and CEO of Mattingly Solutions, a workplace inclusion consulting firm.
“Research shows that sponsorship is more effective at helping advance into leadership positions than mentorship,” Mattingly said. “Mentors are great as a sounding board and to provide guidance, but when the rubber hits the road, you need someone who will speak up for you when you’re not in the room.”
Support women in joining women-led professional organizations. Women also boost their leadership capabilities through joining women’s professional organizations, according to a 2023 study. Researchers surveyed members of a women-led professional organization in the southeastern United States and found that experiences within these women-led associations allow members to hone their leadership abilities, network with other women, work directly with and observe women leaders, and receive support from others to take on leadership roles.
“In turn, these members had increased leadership aspirations, more confidence in their leadership capabilities, and a more expansive view of leadership within their careers,” study authors wrote.
Organizations can encourage this by including professional development funds in their budgets to increase the ability of employees to take part in these groups.
Focus on allyship. Women aren’t the only ones who can help boost the number of female leaders, Mattingly said. Male executives who are trained on how to be allies are far more likely to speak up about incidents of gender inequality than men who are not trained in this approach, according to a 2018 study. “This happens because they are already in a position of power and they are not going to be penalized for speaking out the way a woman would,” said Mattingly, the study’s author.
Allies use their privilege and in-group status to support and advocate for those from a different, historically disadvantaged identity group, Mattingly said. Allyship should be examined through an intersectional lens as well, she added, with White women serving as allies for women of color, able-bodied allies for those with disabilities, or heterosexual allies for those within the LGBTQ+ community.
“It’s a matter of recognizing our privileges, working through biases that we all have as humans, and then leveraging that privilege to either step up or step back or step in and help those who have historically been left behind when it comes to advancing into leadership roles,” Mattingly said.
Thanks to these and other efforts around the globe empowering women to lead, the future of female leaders shows promise, Valerio said.
“We know so much more about this issue than we did 10 years ago, and we have the perspective of seeing what happens when you give people key experiences and the forums to learn from those experiences, and you give them mentors and coaches,” she said. “They are able to really make the strides they need to make, coupled with an attitude toward inclusion. I’m hopeful this may not even be an issue 10 years from now, though it will still require persistent effort for us to get there.”