How the right intervention can improve outcomes for women in business and academia

Female Careers


The extreme under-representation of women in senior leadership roles is as mysterious as it is persistent, find the experts of Insead business school. Therefore they assembled scholars to discuss the root causes of gender imbalances and what can be done to deal with them. Here are a few of their insights: 

Hannah Riley Bowles, Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and presenter at the Women at Work conference, described the self-perpetuating nature of under-representation: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” A lack of visible leadership role models dampens the aspirations of talented women, Bowles says. Shining a spotlight on women who are succeeding against the odds could inspire more women to believe that they, too, can make it.

Ned Smith, Associate Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, grappled with the fact that the market reaction to female CEO appointments is so often negative, given that research shows that companies with diverse leadership perform better. If investors respond unfavourably to the announcement of a new female CEO, it could be because they anticipate bias and ignorance from fellow investors. The researchers started with the hypothesis that CEO appointments receiving greater media attention would trigger more speculative trading, leading investors to seek to profit from their low opinion of their peers’ market sophistication. Researchers found that that was exactly the case. Negative market reaction was restricted to appointments of women CEOs that received higher levels of media attention. More under-the-radar appointments actually had a positive effect on market return for the company. The takeaway is obvious: If your new CEO is a woman and you want to position her for success, keep the publicity around the employment low.

Mikki Hebl of Rice University (also a presenter at the Women at Work conference), is co-author of a recent paper finding that the bias against women also taints the academic world. According to Hebl, men outnumbered women by 2:1 as colloquium speakers at the top 50 U.S. Universities. When researchers split the symposia by topic area, they found that the most stereotypically “feminine” topics – those with the strongest collaborative and pro-social connotations – had majority women speakers. In fact, only six of the 15 identified topic areas accounted for the entirety of the gender gap. These were the most stereotypically “masculine” topics.

“It’s relatively rare to have a male symposium chair and all women speakers. Women invite women to be speakers, and men don’t,” said Camille Johnson, Professor of Management and Chief Operations Manager to the Provost at San José State University.

The conclusion is evident: Academia and research societies should adopt a double-blind review procedure, given the importance of these speaking opportunities and the visibility they provide for young scholars.



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