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Breaking through the glass ceiling

Women make better leaders: new study from Concordia University
May 27, 2013
By Media Relations


When Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the book met with harsh backlash. Critics complained that her focus on top executives negated the struggles of working-class women. But this criticism belies the fact that society as a whole remains woefully unprepared for women to hold positions of power in the workplace.

New research from Concordia University proves Sandberg’s point is valid: when it comes to women leaders, the numbers are damning. Even though women may actually be the better suited than men to wield positions of power, only three per cent of top executives among Fortune 500 firms are women.

Steven Appelbaum is a management professor at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. | Photo by Anna J. Gunaratnam
Steven Appelbaum is a management professor at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. | Photo by Christian Fleury

According to Steven Appelbaum, management professor at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB), that’s because “women are still perceived as inferior leaders despite the fact that they often possess the qualities that make excellent senior managers.” Says Appelbaum, “This ill-conceived notion needs to change – and fast. At the current rate, we won’t see gender equality in the boardroom until 2081.”

Applebaum recently teamed up with a group of JMSB researchers to investigate how women are held back by factors such as inadequate evaluation systems, outdated stereotypes, and an office culture that doesn’t allow for a work-life balance.


The resulting article, “Upward Mobility for Women Managers: Styles and Perceptions,” was recently published in Industrial and Commercial Training.

The team focused their research on gender leadership styles, leadership perceptions, and the challenges women face. They found that, regardless of what the corporate culture may dictate, organizations need a leadership style characterized by traditionally female qualities, such as concern for others.

In fact, out of all leadership styles, “transformational leadership” emerged as the most desirable. That means having a manager who connects to the employee's sense of self, is an inspirational role model, and who enhances employee performance through better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. These are all qualities exhibited more frequently by women than by men, yet significant disparities remain.

“Even though women can be empirically proven to be better managers, they are often held back due to inadequate and highly subjective evaluation processes for senior management,” says Appelbaum. “This can lead to inequalities in promotion opportunities between male and female managers.” Setting out systematic criteria and structured guidelines for evaluation processes could go a long way towards improving gender equality among senior management.

Other barriers also exist – including one of the oldest: motherhood. “Management positions often require gruelling hours and unpredictable schedules, which are hard for parents to work around. Companies tend to favour those who can get there early, stay late, answer emails at all hours, and travel whenever necessary. For many mothers of young children, that’s just impossible,” says Appelbaum, who adds that married women who work outside the home experience far greater conflicts between work and family roles than do their male counterparts.

Ultimately, Appelbaum hopes his research will offer solid arguments as to how and why women demonstrate excellent managerial skill sets, and help the senior managers of the future break through the glass ceiling.

Read the opinion piece Appelbaum published in the Montreal  Gazette on June 3, 2013.

Related links:
•    John Molson School of Business
•    Department of Management
•    Steven Appelbaum’s Research @ Concordia profile

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