Here’s Why Glass Ceiling May Remain Intact Despite Female Leadership
Does having women in leadership make it easier for other women to follow in their footsteps? According to research by Francesca Manzi and Madeline Heilman, not necessarily. In summarising their research, Kim Elsesser explains that the story is often more complicated than that.
There’s an assumption that the mere presence of female trailblazers in leadership positions long held by men will automatically break the glass ceiling, making it easier for future women to obtain those positions. But, Francesca Manzi, a postdoctoral fellow at Utrecht University and lead author of new research on the subject, says, “It’s not that simple. The story is a little more complicated.”
Her research, conducted with NYU professor Madeline Heilman, examined if women who take on leadership positions make it easier for future women to follow in their footsteps. The short answer was no. Having a woman at the helm doesn’t typically help subsequent female leaders. And sometimes, having a female predecessor can even hinder the prospects for up-and-coming female leaders.
If a female leader performs poorly, it may make it even harder for women to be hired in her place in the future. “Exposure to women in leadership roles typically held by men does not necessarily benefit other women. The negative effect of leadership failure is greater than the positive effect of leadership success,” the researchers write.
Oddly, even having a successful female predecessor in leadership didn’t seem to help the chances of future women—although it didn’t hurt them either. Manzi suspects that when a female leader performs well, “people say, ‘oh she is just an exceptional woman, she’s unique, she’s special, but it says nothing about other women.’” When a woman fails, people are more likely to think that the failure is representative of all women and penalize future female job candidates.
The solution to this problem is clear. As more and more women enter the top ranks of leadership our perceptions of female leaders are bound to change.
Another clear advantage of having female leaders is they serve as role models motivating more women to aspire to these roles. “The work on role modeling says it’s really important for women to see other women in these positions. It makes them think, ‘I could actually do that,’” Manzi says. We should certainly celebrate the fact that more women are achieving top-level positions. But we should also be aware that our work is not done. It’s remarkable that Kim Ng has broken into the management ranks in Major League Baseball. Her presence will likely inspire more young women to pursue careers in sports. However, according to this research, the likelihood that a female general manager will be hired in the future depends on whether the Miami Marlins have a winning record next year. Male baseball managers will continue to be hired in the future, regardless of how their male predecessors perform.
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