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Study: Public Praise Encourages Women to Lead in Male‑Dominated Fields

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Jan 24, 2020

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Image Credit: "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"

A lack of women leaders, especially in male-dominated fields, may be due to companies not leaning in to celebrating women’s achievements enough to counter stereotypes, suggests a new study. Finally, we can stop blaming the glass ceiling on women not leaning in enough.

The study, published in The Leadership Quarterly by Jingnan Chen, PhD, from the University of Exeter Business School in the U.K., found positive, public feedback on women’s performance and successes encourages them to lead. And the teams led by these women are more likely to perform well.

“We have shown highlighting achievements is both highly beneficial and often straightforward for companies. The most capable female and male leaders emerge, and consequently, the best group outcomes are obtained, when public performance feedback is given,” Chen said in a statement. “If we have more acknowledgment of women’s achievements, so their colleagues know what they are doing well, women will be more likely to step up and utilize their leadership skills.”

With their accomplishments underrecognized and often undervalued, women are likely to fall prey to imposter syndrome, trapping them in a vicious cycle of low confidence that makes leadership seem out of reach. This, despite the fact that women outscore men on most leadership skills.


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The public praise can’t be generic or lip service, though. The achievements highlighted must be quantifiable — “specific, objective, and measurable work such as sales figures or number of projects successfully completed” — in order to have the desired encouraging effect.

Praising women’s successes is most helpful in facilitating female leadership in mixed-gender environments, especially where women form the minority. Publicizing their achievements among women-only groups, on the contrary, makes them less likely to put themselves forward, as women prioritize a perception of fairness and cooperation.

“Of course this research does not suggest anyone should downplay male achievements, but it shows companies should make a commitment to making sure female achievements are not overlooked or ignored. This is especially important in male-dominated industries,” Chen said.

Chen arrived at his conclusions after studying 248 university students put into groups of four. In these groups, researchers asked students quiz-style questions, asked students to estimate how likely their individual answers would be right, and gauged their interest in leading the group. Students also answered questions about whether men or women would know more about a given topic.

“There are so many capable women, but many do not feel encouraged in their workplace, and this leaves them feeling they shouldn’t put themselves forward for leadership positions,” Chen said. “There is not enough attention paid to the efforts of high-achieving women, partly because they are less likely than men to self-promote their abilities, but it is very important that their work is equally recognized.”

The next step? Getting teams to accept that feedback from these female leaders is just as valid as feedback from male bosses.

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

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