What’s Holding Women Leaders Back?

A large European bio-tech firm with a board-driven agenda to increase the number of women in senior leadership roles was struggling to meet that goal. They asked if the LVI data for a little over 700 upper-level leaders could help identify reasons why. In particular, they wanted to know if the 360 ratings showed evidence of bias against female talent.

We designed a series of analyses with a carefully constructed sample. For each of the 188 women in the data base, we selected a man of comparable age, management experience, and tenure working at the same organizational level.

We used two strategies for statistically isolating potential sources of bias. To the surprise of the organization, there was no evidence of bias against women leaders. For instance, male managers did not rate women leaders worse than female managers rated them, peers didn’t rate women worse than men, etc. And there was no evidence of a double-standard—where women needed to demonstrate more competent leadership behavior to be recognized as equally effective as men.

On the other hand, there were statistically significant gender differences in leadership behavior. Most of the women demonstrated a forceful-operational style associated with the tactical management of execution whereas far more men demonstrated a strategic style associated with enterprise leadership.

A follow-up study compared the career trajectories and job experiences of the women and men leaders. We found that women were far less likely to have the “broadening experiences” associated with the development of strategic enterprise leadership skills—moving to a new function or business unit, expatriate assignments, participating in cross-functional teams, managing a P&L, and so on. They tended to have narrower career paths, with much greater concentration in staff and corporate roles than in commercial roles.

The organization redesigned its development, career planning, and succession practices with an emphasis on gender equality in determining who would be moved into coveted “broadening roles” with the intent of cultivating a broader perspective and wider range of strategic leadership skills.