Corporate values: gender game

Current research shows little improvement in the number of women who progress
to executive levels. Only 3.8% of FTSE 100 executive directors and 13.7% of
non-executive directors are female (Female FTSE 2006 Report). The many barriers
blocking women’s career paths to leadership positions include gender
stereotyping of leadership, women’s lack of access to line management positions,
hidden promotion and reward systems, a masculine corporate culture and
particularly the old-boy network at the top.

Women often do not buy into the male-constructed rules and values of the game
of organisational life, but take a different view of what organisations should
be like. Women focus on what is fair, while men play to win, and this is
grounded in childhood experiences. Girls play differently: most often in twos,
compared to boys who play in groups or teams, pushing for leadership, making
themselves attractive to the team ‘picker’ even if they do not like them or are
scared of them. Through that childhood and adolescent experience, males
therefore come to corporate life with a better understanding than females of
what they need to do to be chosen by males with power and influence.

Several studies have shown that women tend to underrate their achievements,
and have less confidence in their abilities than their line managers have for
them. The female modesty effect leads women to be more modest than men in the
workplace. Women who are assertive and act in a confident manner are likely to
be evaluated negatively, and will be less liked by their peers, particularly
other women, because they are out of their traditional role.

Another reason why women may not self-promote is their preferred
transformational leadership style. Transformational managers see it as part of
their managerial role and duty to notice the performance, strengths, development
needs and ambitions of their subordinates. In transformational managers’ teams,
individuals would be less likely to feel a need to engage in strategies to gain
visibility, because they would receive attention and feedback from their manager
in a non-competitive environment. Women and men who are transformational leaders
also trust their own superiors to notice their achievements and needs.

Subjective barrier

The subjective nature of appraisal and promotion systems is a barrier for
women in male-dominated workplaces. Male managers think women lack ambition,
while most females say they are waiting for a ‘green light’ from their managers.
Women with equal competence tend to receive lower performance assessments from
male supervisors than men, despite equal performance. For women managers,
there’s often tension between their identity as women and professional identity
in a male-dominated environment where promotion is based on male managerial

Impression management (IM) is the process whereby individuals seek to
influence the perception of others about their own image. The prime reason for
attempting to ‘manage’ the impression we create is that through the construction
of ‘desirable’ social identities, our public selves come closer to our ideal
selves. We seek to influence how we are perceived and, therefore, the way in
which others treat us.

The effect of such behaviour may directly impact material outcomes. For
example, giving the impression that one is competent and ambitious can lead to
improved performance ratings and career-enhancing opportunities.

Focused behaviour

IM behaviours may be focused on the self, the manager and the job.
Self-focused strategies involve self-promotion, while manager-focused IM refers
to upward-influencing strategies, such as seeking senior mentors. Job-focused IM
refers to the extra-contractual aspects of high performance and commitment.

We developed a questionnaire consisting of 25 questions covering self-focused
IM, manager-focused IM and job-focused IM. Individuals were asked the frequency
with which they used the IM strategies on a five-point scale to achieve
visibility for advancement to senior positions. The questionnaire was sent to
MBA alumnae of a major UK business school. All had graduated between 1978 and
2000, and over half were now senior managers or directors. Females returned 210
questionnaires (45% response rate), as did 95 of their male peers. Over 40%
worked in management consulting and financial services, 12% were in the public
sector, 11% were in engineering and manufacturing, 7% in healthcare and
pharmaceuticals, 5% in telecommunications, and the rest were spread across a
range of industries.

Both men and women used job-focused IM very frequently, but men were using
significantly more manager-focused strategies than women were. Young and junior
men reported higher frequency use of IM than young and junior women in this
highly educated sample, and they had a broader mix of strategies, using
self-promotion, networking and managing upwards, as well as high performance.

If these strategies are successful, and research indicates that they are,
then young women soon fall behind their male peers. Many female managers who
used IM said in open-ended comments that they only started to do so after they
noticed men with equivalent experience and qualifications getting more

This study indicates the importance of informal influence processes in
promotion systems, and the different inclinations that males and females have to
use impression management strategies. For some, particularly males, the use of
IM seemed almost natural, while for others, there was a sometimes uncomfortable
learning process. Some individuals, particularly females, did not wish to use IM
at all, despite recognising its potential.

If female managers are less inclined to use IM, other than by job-focused
rational strategies of high-quality work and commitment, while their male peers
use these strategies as well as managing upwards and self-promotion as indicated
in these studies, then this is likely to have a continuing negative impact on
their career advancement.

This is an edited version of Gender and Impression Management: Playing
the Promotion Game, by Val Singh, Savita Kumra and Susan Vinnicombe, in Journal
of Business Ethics 37: 77-89, 2002.

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