Women in high places Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner. By World Economic Forum

Women in high places

Having more women in top positions does not as a matter of fact improve career opportunities for other women. On the contrary, successful women who display 'modern sexism' to cope with a masculine work environment can undermine the ambitions of other women

Women in high places are a favorite topic for debate in the media. Last week alone, three headlines caught my attention. The first was an interview with the new Chair of the Board of Directors of Utrecht University, Marjan Oudeman, (NRC, 23 February 2013). The tagline was: 'The glass ceiling? I don’t see it'. In that same paper a journalist noted that 'Women at the top don’t cure financial losses'. He concluded that there is no business benefit from 'positive discrimination'. His evidence? The observation that the firm of Wessanen suffered financial losses in 2012, although two women had been appointed in the Supervisory Board that same year. The story continued on 26 February, when the top HR woman at Yahoo, Jackie Reses, was quoted as saying that employees were no longer allowed to work from home at her company, as this would undermine quality and speed of performance.

Are these random news items? Do such developments show that there is nothing special about women in high places? Psychological research would suggest the reverse is the case. All three would qualify as instances of 'modern sexism'. Simply having more women in top positions does not imply that women have equal career opportunities. Nor is it a guarantee that the input of women will benefit these organizations, or inspire the career ambitions of other women.

A recent review of scientific research on women in top leadership positions shows why this is the case. Both denial of gender discrimination (as voiced by Marjan Oudeman) and endorsement of typically masculine work norms (as promoted by Jackie Reses) can be seen as indicators of 'Queen Bee' behavior. This is a pattern of behavioral and psychological responses often displayed by women in top positions. They emphasize how they are different from other women. In a highly masculine work environment this may seem the only feasible road to success.

While this may work for these individual women, their success does not improve the career opportunities or performance expectations for other women – on the contrary. They set extreme standards that make it even more difficult for other women to achieve the same.

Appointing women in top positions especially during times of crisis - and then blaming them for disappointing business results - is also a well-established pattern. This is called the 'Glass cliff' phenomenon in psychological research. On the surface this may be seen as a sign of improved career opportunities for women. However, appointing women to top positions only when the organization is in turmoil does not offer them equal career opportunities. Instead, they are set up for failure.

Is there any benefit, then, in having women in high places? Yes, there is. Organizations in which women are allowed to offer a different perspective on strategic decision making, customer policies, or human resource management are more successful than organizations where everybody thinks and acts in the same way.

Read more in this review of relevant research: 'Women in high places: When and why promoting women into top positions can harm them individually or as a group (and how to prevent this)', by Ellemers, N., Rink, F., Derks, B., & Ryan, M. (2012).