What enables some women to become CEOs?

What is it like on their way to the top for the women who make up 9% of CEOs or managing directors globally?

According to these women, their success has a lot to do with the way they manage themselves, balancing expectation and demand to reach acceptance. 

According to Grant Thornton (2016), only 9% of CEOs or managing directors globally are women, and in the G7 just 7% of women in senior management are CEOs.

While much of the research on gender and leadership focuses on the structural barriers to women’s career progression, Michael Smets, Tim Morris, and their co-authors decided to turn the spotlight on the relatively few women who have succeeded in becoming CEO. They embarked on an in-depth study of the leadership journey of 12 female CEOs, most of whom lead large, global corporations. (This was part of a larger study on the same topic, covering a total of 151 global CEOs—12 female and 139 male.) Their aim was to discover how the 12 female CEOs explained their own success, and to develop recommendations for supporting women’s leadership careers more generally.

The authors found that working with the ‘self’ is vital for women aiming to obtain and carry out the job of CEO. The female CEOs in the study described the way they had to ‘accept’ their leadership ambition and potential, coping with their own and others’ expectations about their priorities regarding work and family. Typically, they framed work–life decisions like other business decisions: they had to 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) also emerged as important. Despite acknowledging that women were seen to be more careful when making decisions than men, the female CEOs in the study were not only ‘comfortable’ with uncertainty but some actively enjoyed risk-taking.

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 seeking out opportunities to stretch themselves, learning on the job, and learning from the people in their networks. Interviewees emphasised trying to develop networks that would help them to do their current job better, rather than to get a better job, which is typically how men employ networks.

The female CEOs in the study had naturally transformational leadership styles that involve nurturing and communicative behaviour, seen as stereotypically feminine. 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. The authors described this as gynandrous leadership, where both feminine and masculine leadership behaviours are embraced, with the feminine being dominant. Rather than combining gender-based behaviours, the female CEOs translated them to develop a unique leadership style.

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

Claiming the corner office: Female CEO careers and implications for leadership development, is co-authored by Andromachi Athanasopoulou, Amanda Moss-Cowan, Michael Smets, and Tim Morris, and is published in Human Resource Management.