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How do we support female leaders?

Barriers and Facilitators of Female Leader Empowerment (BAFFLE) – is a multi-level organisational model of leadership synthesised from the existing literature on the leadership gender gap. Aptly named to highlight the baffling complexities and limited success in solving the leadership gender gap. The review, published in 2018 by Karen Lyness and Angela Grotto found that research has narrowly focused on barriers, rather than looking at real insights into how we can empower female leaders (facilitators). Of the potential facilitators investigated (listed below), how they interact/combat the abundance of barriers is unknown, as the two opposing forces tend to be studied in isolation. This gap in the research may be one reason why progress appears to be slow (or even reversing).

While this is only a brief overview of the facilitators they highlighted, we believe an important first step is to see where research so far has seen success in promoting and supporting female leadership in senior roles. This will hopefully seed productive discussions that can help us develop meaningful policies and guidelines to better support women in leadership roles throughout our business.

the facilitators of female leadership

  1. Societal Cultural Values – there is evidence that culture has a “trickle-down” effect from the national level and can positively influence organisational structures to better support female leadership. For example a study of European managers showed countries with a greater degree of gender equality positively correlated with more flexible work arrangements and better work-family balance (Lyness & Kropf, 2005).

  2. External Pressure – greater representation of women at larger corporations (e.g at S&P 500 companies) appears to exert positive pressure on smaller companies to improve female representation. Similarly, as more high-profile cases of female leadership successes are shared in the media, this extends pressure to smaller organisations.

  3. Top-Down Support – as more women are promoted into leadership positions they are more likely to develop and contribute to the promotion and advancement of other women. A recent study in 2014 found that female CEO and Board of Director appointments over a 20-year period positively correlated with promoting women within the organisation (Cook & Glass, 2014).

  4. Targeted Recruitment (Inclusive HR strategies) – similar to top-down support, inclusive recruitment strategies that target women develops a stronger pipeline of women into management/leadership positions compared to companies without those strategies (Ng & Sears, 2017). There also appears to be a bottom-up effect as well, as organisations where women occupy more lower-level management positions are more likely to promote women to top management positions as well (Goodman et al., 2003).

  5. Business Outcomes – greater representation of women in leadership is associated with positive organisational outcomes as well, especially a company's bottom line. Women in top management positions have a positive impact common indicators of an organisation’s performance, and the presence of female leadership is viewed by consumers and investors as positive information about a company’s cultural values and future performance (Kulik & Metz, 2017; Hoobler et al., 2016).

  6. Increased Education – higher numbers of qualified and educated women is now creating a pipeline of women to fill positions they were previously seen as un/under-qualified for. This is particularly important for women in top leadership positions, where “elite” business school educations were a significant barrier to entry (Muller-Kahke & Schiehll, 2013).

  7. Positive Perceptions – female leaders are increasingly seen as more effective, however this is context-dependent according to a recent paper by Paustian-Underdahl and colleagues (2014):

    1. In male-dominated organisations (such as military and government) male leaders had higher perceived efficacy ratings than female leaders.

    2. In female-dominated organisations (education and social services) female leaders had higher perceived efficacy ratings than male leaders.

    3. But in business organisations (which are statistically more male-dominated) female leaders were perceived as significantly more effective than their male counterparts.

  8. Mentoring Relationships – changes to organisational relationships are created stronger, and higher-quality mentoring relationships that were previously only enjoyed by male leaders. Specifically, mentors from the same social identity groups (e.g. female managers for female proteges) may be more effective at addressing the unique challenges facing female proteges, as well as providing a “buffer” against ambient discrimination (Ragins et al., 2017).

  9. Stereotypes and Self-Efficacy – a promising buffer against negative stereotypes is the increase to women’s perceived self-efficacy (Hoyt & Blascovich, 2007). There is evidence that those stereotypes are also shifting, for the better. Stereotypes for managers are becoming less masculine (Duehr & Bono, 2006) and instead are becoming seen as more androgynous (Koenig et al., 2011).

  10. Leadership Style – there is evidence to show women are more likely to use transformational leadership behaviours (Eagly et al. 2003), which tend to be considered more effective than styles more typically used by men (e.g. laissez-faire leadership). These transformational behaviours may be effective in promoting women into senior leadership positions (Vinkenburg et al., 2011)


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