Want to encourage more female leaders? Openly highlight their achievements

A study shows that publicly praising women not only increases their willingness to lead, their teams perform better.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 17 Jan 2020

It’s no secret that ingrained gender stereotypes, for example the notion that men are more assertive and therefore make better leaders, have held women back from senior positions at work. 

However a new study suggests that publicly highlighting the achievements of women can empirically increase their willingness to lead. 

University of Exeter Business School professor Jingnan Chen wanted to examine the impact of the gender stereotype effect on women in groups.

The methodology of the experiment gets complicated at times but put simply, 248 students (124 males and 124 females) were split into groups of four and asked to complete tasks including answering quiz questions. 

For each answer they were individually asked to rate - by denoting a rank between one and four - whether their answer should be used for the whole group.

They were also asked to comment on whether they thought men or women would be likely to answer questions correctly on particular subject areas prior to answering them. Researchers were able to measure the impact of the teams’ gender balance on the answers given and also on individual participants’ willingness to put themselves forward. 

Results showed that when working in industries (or categories) they perceived to be male dominated, women were twice as likely to hold themselves back from leading, even when working in majority female groups. 

Similarly, when working in female-stereotyped industries, men were also prone to shying away from leadership roles - although only when working in mixed-gender groups. 

Chen wanted to investigate whether these stereotypes - and people’s perception of individuals and roles - changed once people were exposed to their own performance score. Prior to the group tasks, participants were asked a series of questions and scored on their performance. For some their results were fed back to them, and the best performing group member was highlighted to the rest. 

Interestingly, the study found that publicly acknowledging the achievements of women could improve their willingness to lead in mixed gender groups. 

"If we have more acknowledgement of women’s achievements, so their colleagues know what they are doing well, women will be more likely to step up and utilise their leadership skill," says Chen. 

"Recognising women’s abilities should be done by pointing out their quantitative achievements – specific, objective and measurable work such as sales figures or number of projects successfully completed."

This does not suggest that anyone should downplay male achievements, says Chen, but instead highlights the importance of companies making sure that female achievements are not overlooked - especially in male dominated industries.

Image credit: UniversalImagesGroup / Contributor via Getty

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