Women are missing out on the top jobs by a failure to play by the rules set by men. Is it time to confirm or change the rules?
Val Singh, Savita Kumra & Susan Vinnicombe, Accountancy Age, 08 Feb 2007
Current research shows little improvement in the number of women who progress to executive levels. Only 3.8% of FTSE 100 executive directors and 13.7% of non-executive directors are female (Female FTSE 2006 Report). The many barriers blocking women’s career paths to leadership positions include gender stereotyping of leadership, women’s lack of access to line management positions, hidden promotion and reward systems, a masculine corporate culture and particularly the old-boy network at the top.
Women often do not buy into the male-constructed rules and values of the game of organisational life, but take a different view of what organisations should be like. Women focus on what is fair, while men play to win, and this is grounded in childhood experiences. Girls play differently: most often in twos, compared to boys who play in groups or teams, pushing for leadership, making themselves attractive to the team ‘picker’ even if they do not like them or are scared of them. Through that childhood and adolescent experience, males therefore come to corporate life with a better understanding than females of what they need to do to be chosen by males with power and influence.
Several studies have shown that women tend to underrate their achievements, and have less confidence in their abilities than their line managers have for them. The female modesty effect leads women to be more modest than men in the workplace. Women who are assertive and act in a confident manner are likely to be evaluated negatively, and will be less liked by their peers, particularly other women, because they are out of their traditional role.
Another reason why women may not self-promote is their preferred transformational leadership style. Transformational managers see it as part of their managerial role and duty to notice the performance, strengths, development needs and ambitions of their subordinates. In transformational managers’ teams, individuals would be less likely to feel a need to engage in strategies to gain visibility, because they would receive attention and feedback from their manager in a non-competitive environment. Women and men who are transformational leaders also trust their own superiors to notice their achievements and needs.
The subjective nature of appraisal and promotion systems is a barrier for women in male-dominated workplaces. Male managers think women lack ambition, while most females say they are waiting for a ‘green light’ from their managers. Women with equal competence tend to receive lower performance assessments from male supervisors than men, despite equal performance. For women managers, there’s often tension between their identity as women and professional identity in a male-dominated environment where promotion is based on male managerial characteristics.
Impression management (IM) is the process whereby individuals seek to influence the perception of others about their own image. The prime reason for attempting to ‘manage’ the impression we create is that through the construction of ‘desirable’ social identities, our public selves come closer to our ideal selves. We seek to influence how we are perceived and, therefore, the way in which others treat us.
The effect of such behaviour may directly impact material outcomes. For example, giving the impression that one is competent and ambitious can lead to improved performance ratings and career-enhancing opportunities.
IM behaviours may be focused on the self, the manager and the job. Self-focused strategies involve self-promotion, while manager-focused IM refers to upward-influencing strategies, such as seeking senior mentors. Job-focused IM refers to the extra-contractual aspects of high performance and commitment.
We developed a questionnaire consisting of 25 questions covering self-focused IM, manager-focused IM and job-focused IM. Individuals were asked the frequency with which they used the IM strategies on a five-point scale to achieve visibility for advancement to senior positions. The questionnaire was sent to MBA alumnae of a major UK business school. All had graduated between 1978 and 2000, and over half were now senior managers or directors. Females returned 210 questionnaires (45% response rate), as did 95 of their male peers. Over 40% worked in management consulting and financial services, 12% were in the public sector, 11% were in engineering and manufacturing, 7% in healthcare and pharmaceuticals, 5% in telecommunications, and the rest were spread across a range of industries.
Both men and women used job-focused IM very frequently, but men were using significantly more manager-focused strategies than women were. Young and junior men reported higher frequency use of IM than young and junior women in this highly educated sample, and they had a broader mix of strategies, using self-promotion, networking and managing upwards, as well as high performance.
If these strategies are successful, and research indicates that they are, then young women soon fall behind their male peers. Many female managers who used IM said in open-ended comments that they only started to do so after they noticed men with equivalent experience and qualifications getting more promotions.
This study indicates the importance of informal influence processes in promotion systems, and the different inclinations that males and females have to use impression management strategies. For some, particularly males, the use of IM seemed almost natural, while for others, there was a sometimes uncomfortable learning process. Some individuals, particularly females, did not wish to use IM at all, despite recognising its potential.
If female managers are less inclined to use IM, other than by job-focused rational strategies of high-quality work and commitment, while their male peers use these strategies as well as managing upwards and self-promotion as indicated in these studies, then this is likely to have a continuing negative impact on their career advancement.
This is an edited version of Gender and Impression Management: Playing the Promotion Game, by Val Singh, Savita Kumra and Susan Vinnicombe, in Journal of Business Ethics 37: 77-89, 2002.