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Oxford study shows exactly what it takes for a woman to become CEO


Don’t wait to be asked, don’t count on others, play the long game, actively ‘own’ your career and develop a unique leadership style: these are the principal recommendations to aspiring women leaders that come out of a study of female CEOs by academics from Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

‘Despite an abundance of organisational initiatives aimed at supporting women’s leadership, our research shows that the critical factor in a woman achieving the top job is still active ownership of her own leadership career,’ said Andromachi Athanasopoulou, Associate Fellow at Oxford Saïd and Assistant Professor in Organisational Behaviour at Queen Mary University of London. ‘This starts with acknowledging her ambitions and seeing herself as a leader, accepting the work-life compromises she will have to make, and “toughening up” to overcome both personal and external barriers.’

Women CEOs Infographic
Women CEOs Infographic

Claiming the corner office: Female CEO careers and implications for leadership development’, by Andromachi Athanasopoulou, Amanda Moss-Cowan, Michael Smets, and Timothy Morris, is published in Human Resource Management. It draws on in-depth qualitative interviews with 12 female CEOs and 139 male CEOs of global corporations, aimed at exploring what enables some women to become CEOs.

The authors found that working with the ‘self’ is vital for women in getting and doing the job of CEO. Self-acceptance, self-development, and self-management form three stages in female candidates’ gradual progress towards the corner office.

The female CEOs in the study described the way they recognised their leadership ambition and potential as a moment of ‘acceptance’ rather than celebration.

‘All leaders face difficult work–life trade-offs, but women are often still judged for prioritising career over family. For a woman to recognise her leadership ambition requires making a conscious and effortful choice about what she will become, what she will give up, and the criticisms she will face,’ said Amanda Moss-Cowan, Research Associate at Oxford Saïd and Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Rhode Island College of Business Administration. ‘While our CEOs took work–life balance issues seriously, they framed work–life decisions like other business decisions: recognise the need to make trade-offs, make a choice, accept the responsibilities that come with it, and move on.

‘Overcoming confidence barriers (their own as well as barriers set by others) is also important. This is why our CEOs encouraged young women not to wait until they feel completely ready for a job. Instead, they should seek stretch assignments for their development: that is, take active ownership of their career progress.’

This is how female CEOs learn to lead. Because women typically have limited access to suitable formal development programmes, they rely on self-development, drawing on resources from their environment. This includes actively developing networks that help their careers and help them become better leaders as well as seeking out mentors.

There is a strong transformational theme in how these female CEOs lead others that involves nurturing and communicative behaviour, seen as stereotypically feminine, as well as role modelling. However, the research found that as part of their self-development they concentrated on developing leadership skills and behaviours that are usually thought of as stereotypically masculine – such as ‘seeing the big picture’, developing ‘vision’, and other strategic capabilities. They treated these as additional and complementary to the stereotypically female transformational style in which their own leadership was anchored. That is, they neither attempted to mimic a ‘male’ leadership style nor presented themselves as ‘female’ leaders, but created a rounded and distinctive blend of leadership skills and behaviours that put the feminine first.

The research found that, even once they have become CEOs, female leaders have to work hard at self-management in order to balance competing expectations and demands. For example, they have to ‘be the boss’ while, at the same time, appear ‘not too pushy’.

‘Even the successful female CEOs in our sample admitted that it could be difficult to feel authentic when adopting some “masculine” leadership behaviours, and that there was a risk that people would react negatively when they did so,’ said Michael Smets, Associate Professor in Management and Organisation Studies at Oxford Saïd. ‘So what they did was blend the different types of behaviours and translate them into something entirely new – and stereotype-free. Instead of being assertive in one situation and empathetic in another, for example, the leaders in our study found a way to be empathetically assertive.’

‘It remains true that aspiring women leaders face a range of gender-related barriers at both personal and contextual levels that are simply unknown to their male peers,’ said Tim Morris, Professor of Management Studies at Oxford Saïd. ‘Our study found that it is possible for women to overcome these, but only through an enormous amount of “self-work”, starting early in their careers. Significantly, we discovered that the successful female CEOs we interviewed dealt with the challenge of gender stereotypes not by subverting them but by transcending them. This has important implications for HR departments, those working in leadership development, and for all women who have leadership ambitions.’

For more information, please contact the press office:
Josie Powell, PR Manager, Saïd Business School
Mobile +44 (0)7711 387215; Tel: +44 (0) 1865 288403
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About Saïd Business School, University of Oxford
Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford blends the best of new and old. We are a vibrant and innovative business school, but yet deeply embedded in an 800 year old world-class university. We create programmes and ideas that have global impact. We educate people for successful business careers, and as a community seek to tackle world-scale problems. We deliver cutting-edge programmes and ground-breaking research that transform individuals, organisations, business practice, and society. We seek to be a world-class business school community, embedded in a world-class University, tackling world-scale problems.