Dr Andromachi Athanasopoulou shares insights from female CEOs on their leadership journey

Dr Andromachi Athanasopoulou delivering third 2019 GTC Lecture on Leadership

The third talk in 2019’s Green Templeton Lectures on Leadership series, convened by Governing Body Fellow Professor Sue Dopson, was called, ‘Claiming the corner office: insights from female CEOs on their leadership journey’. Green Templeton’s Anna Clemente, MPhil Politics: European Politics and Society, reports from the evening:

On 7 February, Green Templeton College welcomed Dr Andromachi Athanasopoulou – a Green Templeton DPhil alumna, former Green Templeton Junior Research Fellow and currently Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Queen Mary University of London – for an inspiring talk on women and leadership.

The talk was based on research she recently published with Green Templeton DPhil alumna A. Moss-Cowan and Green Templeton Governing Body Fellows M. Smets and T. Morris, as part of a larger project on which the team collaborated with A.White (also a Green Templeton Governing Body Fellow), to explore the question: ‘How do CEOs develop the competence to lead in a changing world?’

They looked at what advice leaders would give to aspiring CEOs, interviewing 151 global corporate CEOs. 92% of them were male, and 8% female. Just 12 women out of 151 seems like a staggeringly low number, but it is actually reflective of the global context: only 9% of the global pool of CEOs or managing directors are female, and in the G7 just 7% of women in senior management are CEOs. The glass ceiling is still an unshattered reality.

These numbers represent a stable trend, even if there are more women graduating than men. Athanasopoulou and her colleagues considered what enables some women to become CEOs, looking both at contextual elements, such as outside-in influences from their environment, and personal elements, inside-out personal experiences and behaviours. They asked the female leaders to explain their leadership journey, which they summarise in a model of three “self” processes: self-acceptance, self-development, and self-management.

This research fits in the wider literatures on gender bias at the workplace and leadership development and gender. According to the literature, the social factors holding women back from top positions concern the gendered patterns of experience accumulated from birth through childhood, because of which women do not see themselves as leaders. As Ibarra (2014) puts it, they are also “over-mentored and under-sponsored”, with little access to female role models and mentors.

Moreover, the glass cliff phenomenon means women and minorities tend to be considered for leadership positions especially in times of crises, while men are chosen to lead in good times: “think manager, think male; think crisis, think female.” Finally, the particular work-life trade-offs women have to face are often considered an important obstacle.

Another main trend looks at personal behaviours and characteristics. Women have less access to leadership opportunities in childhood; they are encouraged to adopt characteristics of invisibility and modesty and are less likely to speak up; because of this they are also disinclined to self-promote. When successful, they are likely to suffer from neurotic impostor syndrome, feeling like they do not deserve it. Finally, they are punished for deviating from what are considered the expected or appropriate gendered behaviours at work.

Other research looks at different leadership styles and perceptions of effectiveness between men and women. The figure of the leader is often assumed to be male or, at best, genderless, and female leaders are evaluated less favourably than men as leaders (even by women themselves!). Similar roles are enacted differently by each gender: male leadership is more transactional (promising reward or punishment), while female is more transformational (more democratic and inclusive). Finally, when testing competences, women outscore men, with better results in 12/16 skills (including taking initiative and driving for results). Men however seem to be better at developing strategy (this, however, has not been found to be true at female CEO level in Athanasopoulou and colleagues’ research).

Finally, leadership programmes do not seem to help in developing a “leader identity”. This could again be due to limited female role models, gendered career paths and cultural biases.

Athanasopoulou and colleagues’ research used qualitative, semi-structured interviews, with three meta themes on the self: self-acceptance, self-development, and self-management.

Self-acceptance mainly concerned how the female CEOs came to recognise and accept their own leadership potential, and cope with their own and others’ expectations about their priorities. Among the women they interviewed, 11 out of 12 identified the defining moment of leadership with work-related experiences (while for men it is usually personal, such as being basketball captain in high school). Similarly, overcoming confidence barriers was fundamental in their journey. The personal development side consisted in pushing their own limits, continuous self-development and being bold in decision-making, while learning the performative aspects of their work. Finally, they considered it essential to reframe negatives to positives to develop resilience.

In terms of self-development, great importance was given to developing bigger picture and learning not to micromanage; putting emphasis on strategy, vision and purpose; and learning how to prioritise— as one interviewee put it, “choose your hill to die on”. Another important lesson learnt was that women should be proactive and ask for opportunities rather than waiting for others to include them. In terms of mentoring, they recommended working with a good manager who is a leader and could learn from them as well, because of the absence of female mentors, to support each other in female solidarity.

Women should also develop their own transformational leadership style, based on inspiring others by creating a vision and motivation. There is also a component of nurturing others, and as one of the respondents argued, having kids makes you better at relating with people. The importance of communicating is part of this leadership style, especially the power of compromise. Finally, they noticed the important mix of analytics and intuition, and the balancing act between them.

For what concerns self-management, staying authentic is considered crucial, not having a leadership style where you are just copying masculine behaviour and striking a fine balance between appearing neither pushy nor self-promoting, yet managing to successfully enact your leadership role and get work done. It is also important to toughen up, by persevering and keeping your eyes on the prize. Finally, there is a special role for embracing risk: getting out of your comfort zone is a fundamental part of the job, and if you are risk-averse you are the wrong person for the CEO role.

Comparing the advice male and female CEOs offered also returns interesting insights. Only one male CEO in ten would advise the same to women as to men. Men put a particular emphasis in choosing career timing well, suggesting that the child-rearing years are crucial to develop capabilities and formative experiences to become a CEO later. They remark the path dependent result of when you have a child, and that you should not have it in your 25-30s. This is in stark contrast to female CEOs, who observe that in the grand scheme of things, a few years out are not the end of the world in a long career. However, one respondent suggested choosing the man you marry carefully, so you can work out your domestic trade-offs.

Male CEOs remark that mentoring and sponsorship should come from people who made the same progression as opposed to men—which also sounds like passing the buck. Finally, they consider gendered cautiousness and over-analysing as holding women back, and low self-esteem (even if with a higher potential) as preventing them from being their own advocate.

The recommendation of not being too pushy but believing in yourself is shared by female CEOs, who consider how men in their CVs always emphasise what they can do, while women what they are not capable of doing. They also recommend thinking of yourself as a leader and asking for the job beyond middle-management. Finally, they encourage toughening up and developing thicker skin to negative feedback.

So what can women do for themselves?

In terms of self-acceptance, they should take active ownership of their careers—making things happen rather than waiting for them to happen—by consciously deciding on trade offs, prioritising, and taking charge of their lives and careers.

In terms of self-development, they should embrace “gynandrous” leadership, developing a unique leadership style that combines vision and strategy (which are considered typically male characteristics) with what are considered more stereotypically female characteristics, such as a more dialoguing and inclusive style.

Finally, for what concerns self-management, they should translate their own type of leadership, remaining authentic to themselves rather than just behaving as male leaders, and being the boss without being too bossy—what the researchers called “empassertiveness”.

There are also recommendations for institutional changes in organisations and HR. For self-acceptance, organisations should support active ownership by empowering women, for instance through executive coaching and executive education training. They should also support the long game in terms of having organisational practices that facilitate women to reconcile the trade-off between choosing your family or your career.

For self-development, they should help build new networks and connections by attracting mentors and helping women building political capital (rather than just social or information capital). They should institutionalise gynandrous leadership through endorsement by top leadership, new mission statements, and a new gender agenda at the institutional level (which could be presented in places such as the World Economic Forum or Women on Boards).

Finally, for self-management, they should support “leadership translations”, so that in job advertisements and applications women are not put off by a lexicon gathered principally towards men. They should also craft a new leadership lexicon, meaning new ways to talk about the characteristics of leaders which are not so gendered, as the way we talk about things defines the way we practice them.

Finally, in a new paper Athanasopoulou is collaborating on with S. Dopson (a Green Templeton Governing Body Fellow), M. Smets and other Oxford University researchers, they are interviewing more than a hundred female leaders. The emerging themes from the first 59 interviews are that self-acceptance is the catalyst to imagine oneself as leader: accepting you could be a leader is essential to experimenting with leadership roles.

Three particularly interesting observations came from the audience at the end of the talk: one is that women often change organisations rather than grow in them, perhaps for a lack of internal opportunities open to them; another one is that skills are judged differently according to gender: women are valued for their skills, while men are judged on their potential. Finally, there needs to be a change in the education system, with girls empowered from a young age and taught to see themselves as potential leaders.

In conclusion, the talk underlined how there are still many challenges women aspiring to be CEOs have to face, and that the glass ceiling is very much a reality. It is fundamental for women to change their perspective, seeing and accepting themselves as leaders, starting from their early years. As advice to female leaders more broadly and aspiring female CEOs more specifically, the research suggests to embrace their gynandrous leadership, a unique leadership style where they do not just mimic men, but embrace the positive characteristics that come from stereotypical female characteristics and behaviours.

If you want to find out more about this research please follow these links

Find out more about the other 2019 GTC Lectures on Leadership

Created: 14 February 2019