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Help Wanted: Advancing Women in Leadership

by Jackie Swift

Women comprise roughly 47 percent of the workforce in the United States today. They are the majority of college and university students and earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 61 percent of master’s degrees, and 54 percent of doctoral degrees. Yet, as a woman rises through the ranks of an organization, advancing toward top leadership positions, she will likely count fewer and fewer women among her colleagues and peers. According to the 2022 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey, women hold only 40 percent of manager-level positions, 32 percent of vice president–level positions, and a mere 26 percent of the top C-suite positions such as CEO and CFO. The disparities are even greater for women of color.

“The conventional wisdom is that we need to have more diversity on hiring committees and that will help with the problem,” says Michelle Duguid, Management and Organizations. “So, you’ll see that one qualified woman is put on the hiring committee along with men, and she’s expected to advocate for other women and make sure female candidates aren’t discriminated against.”

But according to Duguid, when only one woman sits on an otherwise all-male hiring committee, very often that woman doesn’t advocate for female candidates.

“There’s a common belief that powerful women sabotage other women,” says Duguid, who studies power, status, and influence, as well as diversity and inclusion. “You’ll hear this all the time. When I pose the question of why women aren’t progressing, inevitably someone will say, ‘Because women stab each other in the back. They are part of their own problem.’ However, my research shows that this may be a simplistic and convenient response to a complex problem.”

Duguid wants to spur organizations to look beyond easy answers, and her research digs into the complex power games and interpersonal dynamics that can influence hiring and promotion decisions. “If we think about these things a bit more critically and ask what isn’t working and why and what can we do differently, then we can start coming up with real solutions to the problem,” she says.

Value Threats

Duguid created a series of studies to investigate the perception that women on a hiring committee often don’t pull for female candidates. Is it true? she asked. And if so, why don’t women in positions of power more consistently bring other women onboard?

After analyzing the data, Duguid concluded that the common perception is true, but only to a point. Although women often choose not to advocate for other women, Duguid says, it’s not because they are predisposed to undercut other women. Instead, it’s because they perceive that their own standing within the group is precarious.

“There’s a belief that [by putting a lone woman on the hiring committee] it will make everything work out, even though we know we aren’t seeing a lot of traction.”

“A woman very often doesn’t feel valued in a group like that because she is the only woman,” Duguid says. “Research has shown, a lone female member of a committee has lower status than her male counterparts. To expect this one woman to advocate for other women is unrealistic because—whether you’re a woman or a man—if you don’t feel that you’re a valued member of your group, you’re not going to advocate to bring more people like yourself into it because you may see them as threats.”

Duguid coined the term “value threat” to describe the fear of not being seen as a valuable member of a team. Duguid says individuals are liable to perceive a value threat whenever they have lower status and are in a numerical minority as part of a high-status work group—exactly the situation of a solo woman on a hiring committee. Her explanation found such a broad audience that “value threat” has now slipped into common usage.

Duguid identified three types of value threat: competitive, in which a woman perceives that her colleagues will make room for only one highly qualified woman and therefore, by hiring more women into the organization, she may lose her position in the male hierarchy; collective, in which a woman considers that the potential female candidate may not be competent enough and this will reflect badly on women in general and herself in particular; and favoritism, in which a woman suspects that advocating for another woman will result in male colleagues perceiving her as a poor group member who has a vested interest in packing the organization with women.

Saying Yes to a Man, No to a Woman

In subsequent studies, Duguid investigated how much influence a solo woman holds when a hiring committee is deciding between male and female candidates. “We know from other research that a woman doesn’t have a lot of sway in a group, period,” Duguid says. “But in a hiring situation, when she’s the only woman on the committee, she has more power in two situations: when she says yes to a male candidate and when she says no to a female candidate.”

When a woman says yes to a male candidate, he will often be hired, Duguid explains. “Her male colleagues will think, ‘All right! If the woman says we should go with the man, we’re free and clear. We’re going with the man,’” she says.

Similarly, when a woman says no to a female candidate, that candidate is less likely to be hired, because the woman’s role is seen by other group members as being an advocate for the candidate. “If she doesn’t advocate, then her male colleagues will think, ‘Well, the woman didn’t want the woman,’ so they will feel free to bypass the female candidate,” Duguid says.

In such cases, Duguid points out that men on a hiring committee take the woman’s opinion, either in favor of a male candidate or against a female candidate, as an okay to do what they really want to do: hire a man.

Rethinking Approaches to Gender Parity

Findings like these point to a fundamental failure in the way organizations try to achieve gender parity, Duguid says. “For organizations these days, putting a lone woman on the hiring committee has sometimes become a check-the-box exercise,” she says. “There’s a belief that it will make everything work out, even though we know we aren’t seeing a lot of traction—there’s not a lot of increase in the number of women being hired or promoted.”

Ultimately, Duguid’s research gives the lie to the myth of the female backstabber who stands in the way of other women advancing in an organization. When women feel valued, Duguid has found that they are very likely to advocate for other women; and a female-majority hiring committee will actually choose a woman candidate 50 percent of the time. “Many organizations don’t have a lot of women, so they aren’t going to have hiring committees made up of 50/50 men and women,” Duguid says. “But what’s the sweet spot for the number of women on the committee? Maybe we should try to figure that out, because having just one woman on the committee is definitely not working.”

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