By Joyce Gannon
Women’s lack of confidence in their own leadership skills may be holding them back from top positions in business.
That is a major takeaway from a recent report that found companies with higher percentages of women in executive positions have a stronger financial performance than those where fewer women occupy the corporate suite.
While there are no quantifiable differences in the skills and competencies of men and women, there is a big gap in how the sexes view their own abilities, which prompts more men to pursue promotions that eventually push them to the top, the study found.
“Self-confidence is giving men an upper edge,” said Rich Wellins, senior vice president of DDI International and a co-author of the study.
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“Women are not as confident going after leadership positions unless they are sure they have everything it takes. Men are more likely to take a risk.”
The study was conducted by DDI, a Bridgeville-based consulting firm, in partnership with The Conference Board, a nonprofit business and research association headquartered in New York.
The study included responses from 13,124 business leaders and 1,528 human resource executives at 2,031 organizations in 48 countries.
Of the leaders surveyed, 72 percent were male and 28 percent were female. The largest group, 28 percent, worked in manufacturing industries.
While the research reinforces previous studies that show women are largely absent from corporate board rooms and top executive jobs, this study may go further in analyzing the gender gap in business leadership, Mr. Wellins said, because of its global scope and the fact it included input from early, middle and high level leaders, not just top executive teams.
Specifically, the report said of 2,000-plus organizations that participated, those in the top 20 percent ranked by financial performance had women in 37 percent of leadership positions. Organizations in the bottom 20 percent, according to financial performance, had women in only 19 percent of leadership roles.
Financial performance included data such as profitability and rate of return to investors in publicly-traded companies where those figures could be measured.
Among the factors that inspired more confidence among men, the study said, were their experiences completing international assignments and leading teams across different regions and countries.
Because those “key developmental opportunities” and “more visible leadership experiences” were more common among men than women, the study said, men were “far more likely to be promoted and to advance more quickly in their organizations.”
“Even though in theory their competency levels are the same, men feel they are excellent at their roles,” said Mr. Wellins. “They feel, ‘I’m here, I deserve to be here and I know I’m good’ while women approach leadership roles with a little more trepidation and say, ‘Maybe I don’t deserve the fact that I’m a leader.’ ”
To better position women for leadership roles, the study made several suggestions: First, companies should focus on diversity in their leadership development programs especially the “high-potential” programs that tap young employees for leadership training.
“If there are not a lot of women in the high-potential pool, not a lot of women will go to the top,” said Mr. Wellins.
Also, organizations need to encourage women to assume global assignments, and need to support mentoring and coaching programs that focus on women and include male mentors.
“When men advocate for equality, it’s seen as much more effective,” said Mr. Wellins. “We need male chief executives championing diversity causes.”