Female Leaders and Innovation

Recently, Forbes published its list of America’s Most Innovative Leaders, and surprisingly only one of the 100 leaders included were female. Unsurprisingly, there was quite a bit of backlash, leading to Forbes releasing a response and discussion about how this was a mistake on their part.  But what happened? Why weren’t women included? Are female leaders seen as not innovative?

Research on the topic suggests that female leaders are innovative. For example, one recent study looked at 341 Norwegian firms and found that female leadership was related to organizational innovation[1]. The study found evidence to suggest that part of the reason why organizations are innovative when women are in leadership positions is due to the impact this has on organizational culture. In other words, female leaders can have a “top-down” effect in that they infuse aspects of innovation throughout the organization.

As can be seen, research including (but not limited to) this study suggests that women are innovative. But are women seen as innovative? Studies suggests the answer to this question is “yes” as well. For instance, another study looked at why women leaders are preferred in crisis situations[2]. Readers may remember I posted about the glass cliff: the phenomenon of people wanting females to come in and lead when organizations are performing poorly. There are many reasons why this might be, but this study suggests it might be because women are seen as innovative and creative.

Specifically, they are seen as able to do things differently, try new strategies, break up ruts — all necessary to do when things aren’t going well. Therefore, not only are women actually innovative, but others perceive them as innovative as well.

Then what happened with the Forbes list? Although it may be easy to make accusations of discrimination and/or ignorance on the part of those who created the list, the answer may be more nuanced than this.

A detailed explanation of how the list was created is available, and as can be seen, four factors were considered: 1) media reputation for innovation (measured through the number of articles written about the leader), 2) social connection/capital (measured through the number of connections/followers online), 3) track record for value creation (measured through organizational performance) and 4) investor expectations of future value creation (measured through their innovation premium metric).  As can be seen, these are fairly objective measures without a lot of room for subjectivity or bias.

However, the problem seems to have stemmed from even before all of this. As Forbes discussed in their apology article, they only considered leaders of organizations that met certain criteria.  These criteria included things such as the firm has a market value over $10 billion; in other words, they only looked at top companies, which are less likely to have women leaders.

For instance, only 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies currently have female CEOs.  Therefore, the reason why the Forbes list of innovative leaders didn’t include many women may not have been overt discrimination on their part — it seems that (as they noted) the population of leaders they were considering from the start was just too small. There just weren’t enough female leaders in their original pool of consideration to be able to make much of a dent on the list.

This makes me think: When talking about how to tackle and dismantle inequality in the workplace, it is often easy and intuitive to focus on ways of stopping overt discrimination and prejudice. And although that is important, that only addresses part of the issue.

We need to be thinking about not just how we treat minorities once they are in organizations — but also make sure they are there in the first place! If people who are different aren’t there, it can be easy to forget about them, but we have to make sure that doesn’t happen!

[1] Torchia, M., Calabrò, A., Gabaldon, P., & Kanadli, S. B. (2018). Women directors contribution to organizational innovation: A behavioral approach. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 34(2), 215–224.

[2] Furst, S. A., & Reeves, M. (2008). Queens of the hill: Creative destruction and the emergence of executive leadership of women. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(3), 372–384.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.