Women in Management -The More Things Change . . .

The more things change, the more they stay the same? Not quite. Women have made significant gains in management over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, equality is still a long way off.

When Carleton University’s Centre for Research and Education on Women and Work (CREWW) launched the Management Development Program for Women in 1992, roughly one-third of Canadian middle managers were women. And although only two per cent of senior managers were women at that time, there was a sense of optimism that the glass ceiling would soon be cracked.

In 1990, Alice Eagly – considered one of the most important researchers on gender issues – and her colleagues showed through meta-analysis of a large number of studies that, consistent with gender socialization, women tended to use a more participative management style than men, who tended to be more directive. Sally Helgesen’s, book The Female Advantage, also published in 1990, argued that women’s participative management style was more effective than the traditional hierarchical style of management. When Eagly and her colleagues did another meta-analysis in the mid-‘90s, this time examining studies of leadership effectiveness, it showed that women leaders were judged to be more effective than men in business, education and government. Even management guru Tom Peters got in on the act, saying: “The best managers will listen, motivate and support; isn’t that just like a woman!” It seemed like that glass ceiling would not only crack, it was going to shatter.

Unfortunately, traditional gender stereotypes are not so easily smashed. While women now see themselves as more achievement-oriented than they did in the past, these changes in self-perceptions have not been reflected in how we see others. The gender stereotypes that both men and women hold about other women and men have changed very little over time.

Achievement-oriented women do not fit our stereotypes about women and, thus, provoke negative reactions. This response was demonstrated, for example, in a laboratory experiment where subjects were asked to rate hypothetical male and female managers from descriptions of their job performance. Identical descriptions were provided for both sexes. Results showed that if the performance information was ambiguous, the hypothetical female managers were seen as less competent. If the performance information was unambiguous and showed the individual as very competent, the female managers were rated as less likeable and more hostile than the male managers despite being described in the exact same way. Apparently, we do not expect women to be successful so we view them negatively when they are.

Instead, we expect women to be nurturing. A recent study demonstrated this by testing the skill of managers at reading emotions and asking their staff to rate them. Managers who were not good at reading emotions were viewed as less supportive and received lower ratings overall only if they were women. The male managers were not penalized for not dealing with emotions because we do not expect men to do so.

The stereotypes that persist in our society influence how we evaluate women managers and create barriers for women trying to advance in management. Recent data shows that the percentage of women in middle management in Canada has been at a plateau for several years, at around 35 per cent. In the past 20 years, there has been a significant increase in the representation of women in senior management – from two per cent to 18 per cent – but this hardly constitutes a shattering of the glass ceiling. In fact, Catalyst Canada – an advocacy organization focused on advancing women – has estimated that at current rates of change, it will be the year 2024 before women hold even 25 per cent of senior management positions in Canada’s largest organizations. This may be progress – but it is glacial.

So, how can we remove the barriers and speed the move toward equality? The first thing we need to do is to overcome widespread complacency. Some people talk about today as a “post-feminist” era, implying that gender equality is no longer an issue. If we are in a post-feminist era, it is not because gender equality has been achieved but because many people no longer pay attention to the gender gap. In order to achieve equality, we are going to need to continue to address gender barriers. We are also going to need many more women pioneers to keep chipping away at the glass ceiling – women like Shirley Greenberg, the lawyer, philanthropist and women’s advocate who has been a major force behind initiatives for women in Ottawa, and women like Shauneen Bruder, executive vice-president of operations for Canadian banking at RBC and former chair of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. These pioneers and many others will be sharing their lessons for leadership at CREWW’s 20th anniversary conference “20/20 Vision: Empowering Women” being held at Carleton on May 11.

Dr. Lorraine Dyke is the director of the Centre for Research and Education on Women and Work in the Sprott School of Business.







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