Workplace Interpersonal Culture Determines Women’s Career Opportunities

Organizations, particularly those with ‘star’ cultures, - must take a step back and look at their style of working if they want to see more women in leadership positions, according to a study conducted by Professor Jochen Menges of WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management along with researchers from London Business School and University College London.

The future looks bright for women leaders, but only as long as they work in a cohesive culture. The researchers found that the social network context within an organization determines the likelihood of either men or women being seen as charismatic leaders.

The research, which focused on three studies using a sample of over 500 individuals, found that women were attributed more charisma than men in the context of cohesive interpersonal networks. Such networks are typified by many informal advice ties between team members. Conversely, male leaders were attributed more charisma than women in centralised, hierarchical networks.

Organizations must evolve their workplace interpersonal culture to make leadership accessible for women

“In hierarchical organizations, such as investment banks, where ‘star’ cultures often dominate, women are likely to be viewed as less charismatic leaders because they represent a mismatch with the perceived charismatic leadership stereotype, which favours men as controlling and dominant with high status and power. Therefore in these environments, women struggle to compete with their male counterparts. This is one reason these environments are so typically male dominated, as women aren’t in a context in which their leadership is likely to be recognised,” says Professor Raina Brands, London Business School.

The authors suggest that the bias towards either centralised or cohesive cultures arises not because of actual behavioural differences between men and women. “Even when men and women leaders’ behaviour and performance is identical, the perceptions of their leadership differ depending on the social context in which these leaders find themselves,” says Professor Jochen Menges, WHU.

“In one study, we gave participants identical information about the leader’s performance and behaviour, and all we varied was the name of the leader – either Michelle or Michael. And still, we found that Michelle is seen as more charismatic in cohesive networks, and Michael is more charismatic in star-type networks,” explains Menges.

Organizations that want to see more female leaders in certain sectors must consider evolving their current workplace interpersonal cultures to create cohesive environments. Women better fulfil the expectations of a charismatic leadership style in a cohesive team advice network as this cues people’s expectations of female attributes of care and communality. Therefore female leaders are attributed more charisma than men in the context of cohesive networks.

Research paper: Brands, RA; Menges, J; Kilduff, M; (2015) The leader in social network schema: Perceptions of network structure affect gendered attributions of charisma. Organization Science (In press).