Female Leaders, Confidence, and Business School Action

By Susan Murphy, Director, Executive Women's Leadership Programme, University of Edinburgh Business School
March 7, 2017

Females, Confidence, and Business School ActionThe idea that perceptions of women in leadership are unfavorably skewed in the public eye is not new, and it has been highlighted by recent political events. As the U.S. presidential election result favored Donald Trump over a woman as the next president, I have been reflecting on what we can learn from the experiences of female leaders—and what business schools can do to shape a much more balanced world, one where women can operate on a level playing field.

The Democratic Party nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton—a former law partner, former New York senator, and former U.S. secretary of state—was one of the most qualified people to enter a presidential race. Yet, Clinton was constantly being judged through irrational lenses: a continuous stream of comments about her smile, her looks, her hair. Some leadership experts will tell you that this increased scrutiny simply happened because she is a woman. Or, as the comedian Samantha Bee puts it, this is just “an average Monday for working women.”

Women who reach for powerful positions, once the exclusive domicile of men, are questioned not just about their qualifications but also their motivation, and whether they expect to succeed in the role. Whereas, in fact, it seems that when it comes to rolling up sleeves and getting on with a difficult job at hand, women are well placed to take charge.

Take Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, one of the notable politicians who exerted statesmanship in the wake of Brexit, or British Prime Minister Theresa May, a conservative senior figure who presented a clear message in the days following Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation.

Look at General Motors, which appointed Mary Barra as it was about to be investigated for a failed ignition system. Or Yahoo, who saw seven CEOs at the helm in five years before appointing Marissa Mayer, who came from Google, to sort out issues with search technology and social media. Or consider Reddit, where Ellen Pao was brought in to steer the company out of trouble.

And even despite the qualifications, willingness, and grit these leaders demonstrated, the capacity for each of them to lead was questioned upon the announcement of their appointment and the coverage of their time on the job was scrutinized based not on their actual leadership performance but on attributes that belong more in the personal sphere: spending too much money, deciding not to have children, and … choosing which shoes to wear to work. It’s no wonder that fewer women even strive for top leadership positions.

In my own research with Stefanie Johnson from the University of Colorado, we have shown that a woman’s perceived success as a leader is much more dependent on how likeable she is than a man’s. So why do women have to be likeable?

In corporate life, just as in politics, men don’t seem to be the target of as much personal scrutiny. Politifact’s analysis of political claims shows that Clinton comes just second to the top-scoring candidate of recent years, when it comes to speaking the factual truth. Trump, on the other hand, lies at an unprecedented rate for any politician, and yet, many of his enthusiasts frequently reported supporting him because he “tells it like it is.”

Part of this phenomenon is related to confidence. My own research on self-confidence and leadership shows that women often have lower confidence than men but are rated as more effective leaders. Further, a raft of studies on the role gender plays in the job market demonstrate that women won’t apply for a job unless they feel they tick every criteria in the job description. On the other hand, men will apply for jobs when they have just two or three of the qualifications; they’re more likely to feel confident that they’ll fit the brief.

So what does this mean for the business schools of today? Are we doing everything we can to understand and address these gaps at the point of recruitment and selection? Are we supporting female students in the right way, once they join the program? And are we earnestly preparing them for success in a business climate that does not always shine evenly on men and women?

To address these concerns, some schools carry out unconscious bias training for faculty and students. At Harvard Business School, for example, 40 percent of students’ grades are based on class participation. To encourage fair grading despite implicit biases, faculty have been coached to listen and facilitate confidence. Lecturers know how to allow for female MBA students to speak up and how to manage male MBA students who tend to dominate conversations. Other schools have taken steps to eliminate bias in the faculty recruitment space by taking the names off faculty job applications so assessors aren’t swayed by gender. The result is that the number of female faculty at these schools has increased and, consequently, so has a more diverse view of the world.

At the University of Edinburgh Business School, I believe we have made great strides with our work in promoting gender equity in business education. We have earned top rankings globally for gender diversity in faculty as well as in student cohorts.

We are bringing in men and women speakers in equal numbers. We continually look for ways to ensure that women are always represented in the case studies presented in class. In our most deliberate effort, we began offering an Executive Education Women’s Leadership Programme, designed exclusively for female leaders moving into executive positions. Some of the participants, especially those working in banking or finance, are finding the process extremely useful and are approaching industry speakers to learn how they’ve overcome barriers similar to their own. In this women-only environment, students are empowered to bring gender-related issues to the discussion without fearing their opinions will be diminished.

While progress in this area is increasing, there’s still so much work to do. I’ve now researched female leaders for over a decade and seen the tightrope that women must walk to ascend to higher levels. When I think about how women like Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, and Marissa Mayer must feel about the gender stereotyping they’ve endured publicly, I often wonder if that’s how they’ve always experienced the higher ranks of power privately. What a depressing thought.

Rather than lament this probability, however, as educators of both male and female future leaders we must continue to bring attention to the gender biases that exist and, more importantly, invalidate them through initiatives aimed specifically at inspiring in women the confidence to lead.


Susan MurphyProfessor Susan Murphy is chair in Leadership Development, head of Organisation Studies Group, and director of the Executive Education Women’s Leadership Programme at University of Edinburgh Business School.