When a woman makes it to the top, is the glass ceiling really broken?

When we see women like Melanie Perkins, Sonia Syngal or Cynthia Marshall reaching the top of masculine domains such as tech, multinational retail and sports, it feels as though the future is brimming with opportunities for women in leadership. Indeed, women’s arrival to positions of power is often met with great enthusiasm by the media, politicians and business experts, who portray the presence of these leaders as signaling that the glass ceiling has finally been broken and the path to leadership is now clear for all women. 

While the influx of women into top leadership is certainly an important step towards gender equality, our research suggests that this unbridled optimism may be premature. In a recent series of studies, we find that simply being exposed to women in positions of power does not—contrary to popular belief— “break the glass ceiling” for other women. Rather, the presence of a woman leader can either help or hurt other women, depending on how she performs in her role.

Despite women leaders, the glass ceiling persists 

Because they continue to be heavily underrepresented in high-level leadership (e.g., only 6% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies are women), women leaders are often viewed in terms of their gender: They are seen not simply as leaders, but as female leaders. As a result, these women are often taken as representatives of women as a whole. Accordingly, how a female leader performs has important repercussions for other women seeking access to leadership.

In our research, we find that while a successful female leader can sometimes boost other women’s leadership opportunities, an unsuccessful female leader significantly hinders other women’s chances of success. Specifically, when people learned about a departing female CEO who had performed poorly (versus well), they were much less likely to select a woman to replace her. In other words, when a woman leader failed (confirming expectations about women not having “what it takes” for leadership), participants generalized from the first woman’s poor performance to their expectations about how a subsequent, unrelated woman would perform in the role. This generalization from the performance of a past leader to evaluations of a future leadership candidate did not occur for men: Men were judged as individuals, independent of the performance of previous male or female CEOs.

What can we do about it?

While we cannot ensure that female leaders will not fail—like men, women will not always be successful leaders—we can work to prevent people from overgeneralizing one woman’s failure. One straightforward way is to get more women into high-level leadership. Once women are no longer a minority in these roles, their gender will be less salient, and they will begin to be viewed as leaders rather than female leaders. Consequently, their successes and failures will not be seen as representing other women’s abilities, but as reflecting on them only.

Needless to say, achieving true gender parity in leadership will take time. However, we can enact other measures in the meantime to counteract people’s tendency to generalize between women. For example, organizations may consider revising their managerial job descriptions. Descriptions that emphasize traditionally masculine characteristics (e.g., ambition, competitiveness) over traditionally feminine characteristics (e.g., collaboration, empathy) may exacerbate woman-to-woman generalization by further highlighting the gender of female leaders. Indeed, our research shows that when high-level leadership is seen as less masculine (e.g., when a company is described in more feminine terms), generalization between women leaders ceases to occur.

Although these measures will not, on their own, solve gender inequality in leadership, they may get us closer to breaking that glass ceiling once and for all.      

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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.