Education and Skills

One simple exercise could help women break through the glass ceiling

A woman walks on the esplanade of La Defense, in the financial and business district in La Defense, west of Paris, April 10, 2014.

If we want more women leaders, we need to eliminate self-doubt Image: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Alex Gray
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Despite 30 years of work towards parity in the workplace, the glass ceiling is still very much in place. Women remain woefully underrepresented in positions of leadership.

That’s despite the fact that female leaders best demonstrate the top three effective leadership traits: leading by example, open and honest communication, and admitting mistakes.

 Where are the women in industry leadership?

New research, however, suggests that a simple exercise may dramatically improve the situation.

The research was led by Zoe Kinias, assistant professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, and suggests that the answer to increasing female representation within leadership roles may lie in eliminating self-doubt within women themselves.

Kinias took two groups of incoming male and female MBA students and asked one half to write about their personal values, and the other to write about values other than their own. At the end of the first term, each group’s grade point average was tested for gender differences.

The women that had reflected on values other than their own scored between one-quarter and one-half of a point (on a four-point scale) worse than their male counterparts.

For the female students that wrote about their core values, the gender gap was all but eliminated.

Why is there a gender gap on performance?

The study’s authors believe that the results are indicative of the business environment as a whole and of women’s performance in competitive environments where they are negatively stereotyped.

The fact that there are fewer women role models leads to self-doubt among their female cohorts, in a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat”. In other words, if women don’t see enough of their gender in leadership roles it encourages a belief that they aren’t good enough to be there in the first place.

By reflecting on personal values, however – who you are, what you stand for, what’s important to you – a person’s feelings of self-worth are increased.

“People’s core values are connected to their feelings of self-worth in a similar way that being a member of a devalued group is. Thus reflecting on values bolstered participants’ resiliency against the potential threat to their self-worth that resulted from being a woman,” said the study.

The results were more effective when used during the orientation period, in other words, when starting a new job or new role, before the stereotype threat can take a hold.

Other underrepresented groups could benefit too

The authors of the study also concluded that the same exercise could be used by other devalued groups in business settings.

“We are optimistic that similar organizational interventions can help groups such as ethnic minorities, who can experience stereotype threat in professional contexts.

“The process is relevant to any underperforming, underrepresented group. Outside the US context, whenever there is a group that is underrepresented and not performing as a dominant or a majority group, then this could be relevant for them.”

Kineas began the study after learning a few years ago that there was a gender gap in performance among MBA students at many of the leading business schools, including her own.

She says she is now focused on fine-tuning how to apply what she has learned from the MBA studies in other organizational settings.

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Related topics:
Education and SkillsEquity, Diversity and InclusionLeadership
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