The pitfalls facing female CEOs

Women at the top: the many prejudices

Source: Trends (08/05/2014); Text: Bert Lauwers

Female CEOs are few and far between. Ghent-born professor Katleen De Stobbeleir says the reasons for this are plentiful. The number of misconceptions about female leaders cannot be counted on one hand.

When Dominique Leroy was appointed CEO of Belgacom, the subtle but unmistakable looks of surprise proved that today, a female CEO is still not an obvious choice. Unfortunately, the number of female CEOs is currently far too low. The latest Fortune 1000 list includes a mere 46 women. The reasons for this have been given funky names such as the “glass ceiling” – i.e. the resistance women encounter on their way to the top – and the “sticky floor” – used to refer to women who do not apply for challenging positions due to a lack of confidence for example, thus limiting their development.

However, there’s more to it according to Vlerick professor Katleen De Stobbeleir and researcher Angie Van Steerthem, who both specialise in female leadership. “We are surprised that the debates on the subject mainly focus on the glass ceiling, while there is a much greater risk of a glass cliff,” says De Stobbeleir. That term was coined ten years ago in a study conducted at the University of Exeter (UK) which showed that women are given top-management positions that carry a greater risk of failure more often than men. “Women are more easily promoted to top positions, especially in times of crisis, but they also have a greater risk of failing. Studies focusing on both Europe and the US show that, on average, women remain in their CEO position half the time compared to men, and they have double the chance of being fired.” That is not the only difference between male and female top managers according to De Stobbeleir and Van Steerthem, who, together with KU Leuven and UGent, handed in a proposal at the Agency for Innovation by Science and Technology for a major study about the glass cliff. “We sometimes are too quick to assume that men and women are identical and should simply do the same to reach the top. We need to recognise that there are many differences, and we must acknowledge them and bring them out in the open,” explains De Stobbeleir. That’s where Trends magazine comes in, with this interview.

Is the glass ceiling overrated?

KATLEEN DE STOBBELEIR. “Whether a sticky floor or a glass ceiling, to me it’s nothing but semantics. Maybe the word “labyrinth” would do equally well. Women have difficulty reaching the top at companies and they experience more problems than men in staying at the top. We pay too little attention to what makes a success story, to how women can feel good in their top-level jobs without just running away or failing.”

The result remains the same. The number of female top managers is increasing, but at a very slow pace.

DE STOBBELEIR. “Promotions like that of Dominique Leroy at Belgacom give a positive signal, but if we continue at this rate it might take up to 2030 at least before a third of all top-level positions are taken up by women. One third is also referred to as critical mass.”
“Unfortunately women are less likely than men to personally show interest in a job. They feel they should be approached. Otherwise they don’t feel competent.”

Should quotas be introduced for female CEOs?

DE STOBBELEIR. “That is beside the point. Solving a problem through the regulatory framework is often an unsuccessful approach. Quotas can work if the organisation is ready to embrace them. But in an organisation where women also say “I don’t care” you cannot introduce any quotas. I can imagine that there are people who want to speed things up, but to be honest that’s rarely what women are waiting for. In fact, it is usually women who oppose the idea because they don’t want to be stigmatised or favoured. All the fuss about the topic has resulted in few people actually identifying with it. And that’s a real pity, because it slows down the process.”
“Anyhow, we have noticed cracks in the glass ceiling, albeit small ones. We should focus more on the future; we should think of ways to make the few women at the top feel comfortable and become role models.”


“A diverse top management takes much better decisions,” explains Katleen De Stobbeleir. “It doesn’t really matter whether the CEO is a man or a woman. The management committee must be diverse. More and more often, decisions are not taken by an individual but by the management committee. Often the CEO then becomes the spokesperson who communicates the decision.”

So there is no lack of competent women?

DE STOBBELEIR. “I don’t think so. Ben Lambrecht, the CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises Benelux, had an all-male management committee, for example. He was told there were no women available, and if there were, that they were unwilling to join. He set out to find them and it proved quite an easy task.”
ANGIE VAN STEERTHEM. “Studies show that women are less likely to apply for a job than men. Women want to meet minimum eight out of ten criteria, while men are more confident of their abilities. Moreover a leader – someone who is convincing and has charisma – is often associated with male characteristics. A woman might do things differently, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t do them equally well.”


“Women at the top are often asked by colleagues “How do you manage with the kids?”,” says Katleen De Stobbeleir. “It makes them angry. Women at the top feel the impact of children on their career is overrated. It can actually motivate them to further their growth.”
“On the other hand, women who are planning to start a family in a few years’ time think “I’m not going to apply for this challenging job, because in two years I might be out for months.” That’s an explanation, but it’s not the explanation for the limited number of women at the top in business.”


So a woman should display more male characteristics?

DE STOBBELEIR. “No. They are often penalised for it, and described as “bitchy”. In management you need contrast. For example, if you’re an older man, it’s better to treat your staff kindly. If you’re tougher, you’re considered a bully. Young women, on the other hand, are often told it’s better to be tough, because if you’re too soft, people will walk all over you.”

Female CEOs are more careful, they create fewer peaks and troughs in investments, and in profits and sales, but they also make less spectacular profits and losses according to a Danish study.

DE STOBBELEIR. “Nevertheless, there are many studies that show that women can also take big risks, more so than men. We don’t know much about those. Sometimes women score a bit better in coaching and men score better in terms of vision. But usually these differences are quite negligible.
However, there are differences in the way that behaviour is interpreted by their environment. The women in top positions that we interviewed experienced a lot of resistance from people who report to them, mainly women. Resistance tends to come from the bottom rather than from the top.”


“When top management decides to promote someone, it doesn’t pay much attention to direct reports, i.e. the people who report to them,” explains Katleen De Stobbeleir. “It mainly takes into account peer reactions. Positive feedback from direct colleagues, rather than from staff at lower levels, takes precedence. One of the keys to getting ahead in the organisation is therefore to have a good relationship with your peers. In this view, women might be advantaged, as men sometimes see their peers as competitors.”


Why do many women still need a lot of encouragement to apply for top positions?

VAN STEERTHEM. “Because of subconscious prejudices? A woman is expected to be asked to apply for such jobs. These prejudices are still stronger than we think.”
“A study shows that, if you take on extra tasks as a leader, this can be considered an asset in assessments or promotions. For men, that is. As a woman, it is considered normal that you do more for your colleagues. Women are associated with care positions. If a woman fails to take on such care tasks in the organisation, this is considered a negative trait. When a man fails to assume these tasks, it is considered normal.”
DE STOBBELEIR. “Men in a prevailingly male business culture find a mentor or a sponsor who assists them on their way to the top. That is a very natural process, but not for women. CEOs who bring women into their management team are often accused of being womanisers. If, as a man, you try to assist a woman on her way to the top, there’s always that barrier.”

Which other prejudices are common?

VAN STEERTHEM. “Women are more often hired for high-risk positions, because recruiters feel women have the abilities to solve crises or because it is less of a tragedy for a woman to fail than for a man.”
DE STOBBELEIR. “Take Didier Bellens at Belgacom, for example. Some say a woman was appointed CEO to solve the crisis and iron out shortcomings.
It is also often said than women are not as good as men at negotiating, while every single study proves that they are equally good at it, but men and women tend to negotiate about very different things. A woman tends to negotiate for her team, for example about flexible working hours or the possibility of promoting a colleague, but less time is spent on negotiating projects she’d like to attract.”
“Moreover, specific behaviour in men and women is interpreted entirely differently by their surroundings. We all have a stereotypical image of women at the top: they are very tough. A man who has a tough approach is considered ambitious. Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, once said “A little girl who is bossy at school is called bossy. A boy is immediately called a leader.” What’s more, the average employee still thinks it’s better to have a male leader than a female one.”

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