Would-be women leaders ‘need to take active ownership of their career’

Women who want to be leaders in their chosen field need to take active ownership of their career progress from an early stage and develop a unique leadership style, according to a study of female CEOs by academics from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.

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“Despite an abundance of organisational initiatives aimed at supporting women’s leadership, our research shows that the critical factor in a woman achieving the top job is still active ownership of her own leadership career,” said Andromachi Athanasopoulou, Associate Fellow at Oxford Saïd and Assistant Professor in Organisational Behaviour at Queen Mary University of London.

‘”This starts with acknowledging her ambitions and seeing herself as a leader, accepting the work-life compromises she will have to make and “toughening up” to overcome both personal and external barriers.”

‘Claiming the corner office: Female CEO careers and implications for leadership development, by Andromachi Athanasopoulou, Amanda Moss-Cowan, Michael Smets, and Timothy Morris, is published in Human Resource Management and draws on in-depth qualitative interviews with 12 female CEOs and 139 male CEOs of global corporations about what enables some women to become CEOs.

The authors found self-acceptance, self-development and self-management form three stages in female candidates’ gradual progress towards senior leadership.

The female CEOs in the study described the way they recognised their leadership ambition and potential as a moment of ‘acceptance’ rather than celebration.

“All leaders face difficult work–life trade-offs, but women are often still judged for prioritising career over family.

For a woman to recognise her leadership ambition requires making a conscious and effortful choice about what she will become, what she will give up, and the criticisms she will face,” said Amanda Moss-Cowan, Research Associate at Oxford Saïd and Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Rhode Island College of Business Administration.

“While our CEOs took work–life balance issues seriously, they framed work–life decisions like other business decisions: recognise the need to make trade-offs, make a choice, accept the responsibilities that come with it, and move on.

“Overcoming confidence barriers (their own as well as barriers set by others) is also important. This is why our CEOs encouraged young women not to wait until they feel completely ready for a job. Instead, they should seek stretch assignments for their development: that is, take active ownership of their career progress.”

Because women have typically had limited access to suitable formal development programmes, the researchers say they have had to rely on self-development, drawing on resources from their environment. This includes actively developing networks that help their careers and help them become better leaders as well as seeking out mentors.

The research found that female CEOs’ leadership style was characterised by an emphasis on  nurturing and communicative behaviour, but that this was complemented by traits such as ‘seeing the big picture’, developing ‘vision’, and other strategic capabilities.

The research found that, even once they have become CEOs, female leaders have to work hard at self-management in order to balance competing expectations and demands. For example, they have to ‘be the boss’ while, at the same time, appear ‘not too pushy’.

“Even the successful female CEOs in our sample admitted that it could be difficult to feel authentic when adopting some “masculine” leadership behaviours, and that there was a risk that people would react negatively when they did so,” said Michael Smets, Associate Professor in Management and Organisation Studies at Oxford Saïd.

“So what they did was blend the different types of behaviours and translate them into something entirely new – and stereotype-free. Instead of being assertive in one situation and empathetic in another, for example, the leaders in our study found a way to be empathetically assertive.”

“It remains true that aspiring women leaders face a range of gender-related barriers at both personal and contextual levels that are simply unknown to their male peers,” said Tim Morris, Professor of Management Studies at Oxford Saïd.

“Our study found that it is possible for women to overcome these, but only through an enormous amount of “self-work”, starting early in their careers.

Significantly, we discovered that the successful female CEOs we interviewed dealt with the challenge of gender stereotypes not by subverting them but by transcending them. This has important implications for HR departments, those working in leadership development, and for all women who have leadership ambitions.”

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