Why are women still losing the promotion wars?

3 minute read

Why are women still losing the promotion wars

How do you identify a leader? Time and again studies have shown that characteristics like drive, confidence, and asserting a point of view are seen as ‘leader-like’.

Genetic factors associated with personality have been shown to account for 30% of the discrepancy between individuals selected for leadership roles. Therefore its reasonable to speculate that over the course of our evolution people evolved “cognitive prototypes” they use automatically to evaluate persons who aspire to lead. It’s also the case that these leader-like traits are overwhelmingly seen as masculine and the empirical fact is that as they climb the corporate ladder women vanish.

The easy response is that men have the right stuff, women don’t and that accounts for the gender gap at the top. Or maybe women just don’t want to lead. But that assertion depends on male and female leaders being significantly different – and that is not true.

An investigation by Winsborough into the personalities of male and female aspirants for CEO positions revealed no difference between the genders. Women who aspire to be CEOs are every bit as ambitious, competitive, outgoing and confident as the men. Men and women at the tops of organisations are more similar than they are different (although quite unlike those of us in the common herd).

So maybe there is bias in how bosses evaluate women?

Our colleague Rob Kaiser has also examined whether male and female managers are evaluated on 360 surveys in a biased way. He wondered if male workers rate their female bosses more harshly, or if male bosses are more lenient to their male workers. Using a matched sample from the USA, Australia, Europe and South Africa his conclusion was an overwhelming ‘no’.

There were two noteworthy findings however. Firstly, women rated their female peers much more harshly, and they were more likely to be self-critical than men. Secondly, men were more likely to be seen as hands-off and trusting, whereas women were typically seen as less strategic and more operationally focussed. This suggests that women who are climbing the ladder might be caught in a competence trap – confident and capable women aren’t promoted because they are too good where they are. There is evidence that after age 40 women are more effective leaders.

Another, darker reason has been advanced by UCL Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. Women don’t reach the top because narcissistic but incompetent men fill the slots first.

In his view, people mistake over-confidence, self-promotion and ambition for competence. It turns out that in this case, men are more likely than women to display hubris which leads to them being selected as leaders more frequently. This finding dovetails with Professor Chamorro-Premuzic’s research on emotional intelligence; women do better here, and EQ is a predictor of modesty, not self-aggrandisement.

The people fronting up for top roles are more similar than they are different; staff and bosses evaluate them in similar ways. Women are at least as competent as male leaders- and maybe more so. Just don’t fall for the guy telling you that he is better than the rest.