October 13, 2010

When the Glass Ceiling Helps

The glass ceiling is an infamous barrier, but a team at Duke recently discovered that it actually metamorphoses from a negative to a positive as women move from below it to above it. For middle-management women, it's a barrier; for top leaders, it's a mark of courage and ability. In fact, women in the top spot who are credited with success are perceived as having a significant leadership advantage over men.

In a sense, "it's a double double standard," Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, the lead researcher, told me. Because of the obstacles that women often have to face as they climb through the organization, "the perception is that they've had to work twice as hard to get to the top, so once they get there, people think, 'Wow, she must be phenomenal!'"

Rosette and her co-researcher, Leigh Plunkett Tost, undertook their study after realizing that very little research had examined how women are perceived once they get to the pinnacles of organizations. Perceptions of women in the lower ranks and in middle management are well understood, but the rarefied air of the C suite was relatively new territory.

Their research, which involved questioning hundreds of students about fictional leaders, revealed another magical property of the glass ceiling: Above it, women can be perceived as both caring and competent, whereas below it, they tend to be viewed as one or the other. "Women at low levels of the organization are frequently perceived to be communal but not very agentic," Rosette says, using the psychological terms for, respectively, nurturing and competence-demonstrating. "At the middle level, if they are successful, they are perceived to be agentic, but not communal. But at the top level, we found that these two characteristics don't have to be mutually exclusive."

Why do the "rules" change above the glass ceiling? Part of it may have to do with competition. Middle managers areperceived as being in constant competition with other managers. That makes people see them as competitive and unfriendly (it's just a perception — not necessarily the reality). But when a woman occupies the top spot, she tends to be viewed as having far less competition. That eases the perception that she's not nice.

Look at Hillary Clinton, Rosette says. She was excoriated as too agentic (tough) and not especially communal (friendly) when she was engaged in the highly competitive presidential campaign. Now that she occupies the position of secretary of state and is no longer in competition with a rival, she is seen as both agentic and communal, not only getting her job done but relating well to diverse groups of people.

Clinton's improved ratings in her current position are in line with what Rosette's research has found. Women in top spots are perceived as having an advantage over men because of their combination of communal and agentic qualities. That may be a reflection of people's changing attitudes about what makes a good leader: More and more, the ideal leader is participative and collaborative, willing to listen to followers and value their opinions, she says.

Andrew O'Connell is an editor with the Harvard Business Review Group.

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