The Role of Gender in Corporate Advancement

Recently, in a conversation with a male friend, I was told that men don’t like working
with women who are too competitive. He used a different term, but the sentiment
was that overly aspiring women have a negative effect on men’s masculinity.

Ellen Voie

His statement reveals a great deal about why women are under-represented in the C-suite. To succeed in business, women often take on characteristics that are considered to be “masculine,” which occasionally intimidate some male colleagues. Why are “competitive” women sometimes viewed disapprovingly, yet men are more likely to be considered to be results oriented or even great leaders?

One definition of competitive is, “involving or decided by trying to do something better than others.” Why would the desire to “do something better than others” intimidate some men? Anne Cummings, a professor at the university of Minnesota found that the development of leadership characteristics is not biological, but cultural. Since men are more task oriented, this is assumed to be a more masculine style of leadership. Women are more relationship oriented, so this is viewed as less competitive and more collaborative.

When women challenge men, they are sometimes viewed as “too competitive." Men and women can do the same thing, but if they both act assertive, women are rated less effective because we expect men to do that," Cummings noted. Despite the fact that women hold one half of all management positions, upward promotions seem to filter more women than men. Women’s presence in the executive office is less than twenty percent in Fortune 500 companies, and has not grown considerably in the last ten years.

Ilene Lang, President of Catalyst, a non-profit group that studies women at work, claims that women are held back because of the lack of role models, stereo-typing and limited access to informal networks inside the company. She states that men who step out of their comfort zone and coach their colleagues in a more relationship-oriented way are given extra credit for being career mentors. However, even when men compete in more aggressive ways, they are not penalized.

Women, according to Lang, are perceived to be inherently helpful and supportive, and when they do defy this perception, they are viewed as overly aggressive or competitive. She encourages companies to realize that they often evaluate men and women differently and that “they have got to level the playing field.”

Rebecca Shambaugh, CEO of a leadership-consulting firm puts much of the blame on women themselves. Instead of a glass ceiling, she labels the phenomenon to be more like a “sticky floor.” “It’s the fear of the unknown, the fear of getting out of the comfort zone” that keeps women from inhabiting the C-Suite.

Critics could claim that the reason women are not as numerous in the executive suite is because they are more likely to be at home, especially those with young children. Paula Stone, author of “Opting out,” explored the reasons women have left their corporate roles when the cost of “having it all” became too great. Stone claims that women were “pushed out” due to workplace expectations, such as 60 hour work weeks and a culture that values loyalty and focus. Perhaps an examination of what defines a leader should be reevaluated when it comes to these issues.

Women may prefer a less competitive environment and Stanford University professor, Muriel Niederle, believes that this could mean that women, ultimately, are less likely to reach the C-Suite. She conducted research on participants who were asked to choose whether or not their scores on a simple test should be rated in contrast to the others in the test group. The research found that women were twice as likely to choose a noncompetitive setting than men.

Although Neiderle’s research found that women did as well as men and that a competitive environment improved both group’s performance, women were less likely (35 percent as opposed to 73 percent for men) to participate in a tournament setting. Even the best performing women declined to compete more often than the worst performing men.

Neiderle’s conclusion is that women are more comfortable in a less competitive environment, and that creates a more risk-averse level of performance. This confirms Lang’s view that women who are competitive are often stepping outside of their comfort zone.

To be in a leadership position requires addressing challenges that are not always within one’s realm of comfort. While this research supports my male friend’s view that competitive women are not always appreciated in the executive suite. Perhaps it is a better indication that it’s time to expand the comfort zone of both men and women and to surrender some long-held perceptions that could be affecting the presence of women at the corporate level.