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).


Pia Dhont

Fact is that less women are working than men and that not all working women pursue a job on a higher level. That is why will we never reach a 50%-50% gender balance. A gender balance of 70%-30% though should be possible. But because there are less women than men who have the ambition to move on to a higher level position, it is more difficult for companies and head hunters to find them (It is a smaller market). In their turn, women often wonder how they can make themselves better visible for head hunters (there are about 450 executive search bureaus in The Netherlands). Supply and demand don’t easily meet. Stop all the guessing what is the matter; we need a practical solution. An example is the service that is provided by Gemengd Dubbel.nl (a new start-up). See www.gemengddubbel.nl


Denying the class ceiling seems to be absurdly naieve to me. You cannot expect that the feminist waves tackled sexism in a hundred years completely when women have been oppressed for centuries, and even up till today.
Also, it might be time to realize that women are people instead of not-men.

Peter Bongaarts

"Women in high places", een goed idee, wie zou dat niet graag willen?

Maar, waarom zijn er in aan Nederlandse universiteiten zo weinig hoogleraren in de wiskunde? Op het ogenblik géén enkele, geloof ik. Een vervolgvraag: waarom studeren er zo weinig meisjes wiskunde aan de Nederlandse universiteiten? Typisch Nederlands? In ieder geval is de situatie wat dit betreft in landen als Frankrijk en Italie heel anders.

M. Brandenburg

What I am getting from this article is the level of whining. Women are not appointed and when they are it is because we are in rough financial times, and this way thee women are set up for faillure. A faulty and a prejudgemental idea in my book. For the simple reason, that any new member of the board or even personal in high positions, this way are set up for faillure, only wanting to see it in this bias manner, doesn´t proof a thing.

So now the solution is to wait until we are in financial better times, and till that time we complain about the lack of women in high positions. That in comparison to men, women work more partime or only a limmited amount of daus during the week we ignore. While these factors are at the base of the ammount of women who do succeed. How many women in comparison to these figure become succesfull. And then how big is the difference bases on these numbers to men. only then we can see the real differences, comparing just the numbers between men in high places and women in high places will always give a flawed point of view.

If i Fish in a pond with a lot of fish I will catch a lot of fish, however if I fish in a pond with only a few fish, I will be lucky to catch one.

Personally I think here is where we go wrong in this issue, we want to catch a lot of fish in a pond with few fish. To catch fish we either have to move to the better pond with more fish or we need to upgrade our way of catching fish, even so we are changing the rulse of the game in favor og women, who by then are no longer selected on qualitity, but on quantity, because now we use a big net and take what we can get instead of selecting the best fish that we are able to catch.

In the fight to get more women in high positions we forget that we need to look at qualities of the person and never to sekse, race or religion, this is what people always seem to forget, and therefor, think that the how is not import as long as we have more women, the end of any bussiness.

Besides this, in Holland we have a saying, "if he want to learn to swim throw him in the deep end". Rough times are bad, but it shows those who can handle pressure, come with solutions, and those who panic and fail.

For me it would be more important to analyze women in high positions, because as we know psychological research shows, that women in hogh positions, suffer more from stress and burnouts, solve these sorts of problems, and then we can find a way to have more women in high positions.

Peter Bongaarts

A very interesting article! I would like to hear more about this.

Anne Stiggelbout

How right, Naomi, thank you.
What additionally struck me in the Wessanen case is that nobody seemed to question whether it is even possible to change the financial statement of a particular year, or worse even, of the previous year, by joining the Board of Trustees! Changes in policy via a Board of Trustees will take years to be reflected in the financial situation of a company.
Anne Stiggelbout

Professor of Medical Decision Making
previous Chair of the LUMC women's network