Research for the Public Good: Helping Women Break Through the Glass Ceiling - What They Expect from Other Women

Dr. Deborah A. O'Neil
Dr. Margaret E. Brooks

While more women are running for political office, in Corporate America, levels are trending lower for women leading companies. The percentage of women in CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies plummeted 25% in 2018, according to an article in Fortune magazine authored by Valentina Zarya. So, do women who are trying to climb the corporate ladder feel they are getting enough career mentoring from women who are in more senior organizational positions?

Two management professors from Bowling Green State University, Dr. Deborah A. O’Neil and Dr. Margaret E. Brooks, believe that women-to-women working relationships need to be studied and want us to better understand these career support behaviors. The two professors, along with a management professor from the University of Toledo, Dr. Margaret M. Hopkins, investigated expectations women have of other women regarding senior women’s roles. They identified a significant gap between expectations and perceptions on the part of junior and senior women.

Drs. O’Neil, Brooks, and Hopkins published their article “Women’s roles in women’s career advancement: What do women expect of each other?” in the Career Development International journal in 2018.

The scholars find that “both junior and senior women have high, and often unmet, expectations of each other regarding career assistance and career advancement behaviors.” Junior women think senior women are not doing enough to help them advance their careers, while senior women think junior women should be more proactive to advance their own careers.

The team of management scholars also conclude that there is a significant gap in perceptions of motivation to engage in career assistance behaviors. According to their study, senior women see their reasons for providing career assistance as more “pure”, the self-satisfaction of passing on their insights and knowledge to those coming up the ranks; however, junior women think senior women are motivated more by self-serving reasons - enhancing their own careers through increased visibility and reputation.

Based on their findings, what do the authors recommend? They suggest organizations create environments that foster healthy working relationships for women. According to Drs. O’Neil, Brooks, and Hopkins, organizations need to acknowledge that their organizational systems are gendered, placing women at a distinct disadvantage. Organizations should initiate change at both organizational and individual levels.

For organizational changes, the scholars recommend encouraging flexible career paths and intrapreneurship, increasing access to senior-level networks, conducting equity assessments to address gender gap issues, and providing effective work-life balance and managerial support and encouragement. They suggest organizations examine their norms, policies and practices and make changes to ensure equity in advancement opportunities, work assignments, mentoring, sponsorship and compensation.

At the individual level, the researchers suggest organizations encourage both informal and formal mentorship and sponsorship for women, so junior women have opportunities to connect with senior women, and senior women can play a role in developing successive leadership. Additionally, organizations should create and promote women’s affinity groups or women’s networks for senior and junior women to engage, interact and learn from each other. Senior leaders must also advocate for and promote diversity in the recruitment and retention of women, and managers must be held accountable and be rewarded for increasing gender equity.

If we are to reverse the downward trend of women leading the largest companies, additional research is needed to better understand women-to-women working relationships so organizations can create environments that support, encourage, and develop all of their women leaders. 

Updated: 10/29/2019 09:40AM