Paper submitted for the symposium
‘Success at the top: Establishing diversity in senior management’
The BPS Annual Occupational Psychology Conference, Stratford, 2004.
She may be good, but pity she’s not a bloke!
Despite over one quarter of a century of Equal Opportunities legislation,
women remain grossly under-represented in the top positions of
There are many ways of investigating why this is the case, but this paper will
approach the subject by scrutinizing how leadership is assessed.
Organisations adopt various techniques for assessing managerial
effectiveness and leadership potential. These have been modified, in part, as
a result of the emergence of the ‘new paradigm’ of 'Transformational
Leadership'. Research relating to gender and notions of leadership has
consistently concluded that women, in general, are more likely to prefer to
adopt the transformational style than are men. Yet despite the evidence that
such a style of leadership (combined with transactional, or managerial
leadership) is more effective in organisations, women's representation in
senior and top organisational positions (around 5-6%) has not increased
significantly over the last two decades.
Why then are women still conspicuously absent from the most senior
To be perceived as a leader implies that an individual has a sense of direction
and a mission, but this is insufficient or irrelevant if the leader cannot engage
the heart, mind and actions of followers.
The new model of leadership is referred to as 'Transformational Leadership'
since it is about possessing the qualities and competencies of transforming
individuals' self-interest to take on the interests and needs of the group, and to
transform individuals' self belief, motivation, expectations and self-efficacy,
such that they perform beyond their own expectations (e.g. Bass, 1985).
Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe is Professor of Leadership Studies at The University of Leeds, currently on secondment
to Leadership Research & Development Ltd., which is a spin-out company of the University. www.lrdl.co.uk
It is frequently compared with 'Transactional Leadership' which is commonly
known as 'management', that is dealing with the given; organising, planning,
objective-setting, monitoring performance, and providing contingent reward to
influence the behaviour of followers.
Whilst both transactional and transformational leadership are important for
managing organisations, one of the major reasons why organisations are
becoming increasingly concerned to develop transformational leadership is
that research studies are finding a significant association between the
transformational style of leadership, and staff with significantly higher levels of
job motivation, satisfaction, commitment and performance (Bass, 1998; Bass
& Avolio, 1994); and organisations with higher levels of performance (e.g.
Gender & Leadership
Prior to the 1990s, no major differences were found between the style of
leadership adopted by women and men (e.g. Powell, 1990). However, since
then, several studies have consistently found significant gender differences in
leadership style, with women, in general, appearing to adopt a more
transformational style, and men a more transactional style (Alimo-Metcalfe &
Alban-Metcalfe, 2003; Bass & Avolio, 1995; Church, 1994,1998).
Given the superiority of the transformational style over the transactional style
alone, why are women less likely to be occupying the most senior
It has been argued that one of the major reasons might be that women and
men perceive leadership differently (Alimo-Metcalfe, 1995).
Several studies have found evidence that suggests women, in general, are
more likely to construe leadership in transformational ways, and men in
transactional ways (e.g., Alimo-Metcalfe, 1995, 2003; Sparrow & Rigg, 1993;
Rosener, 1990). Since men are more likely to occupy the most senior
managerial positions in organisations, this has important implications for
organisational assessment processes, such as criteria for selection,
promotion, development frameworks, and performance evaluation, with
women being potentially hampered by the bias towards the transactional style
of leading (Alimo-Metcalfe,1995).
This is separate from the question of whether there appear to be differences
in the leadership styles adopted by female and male managers, in general.
Are there such differences?
To answer this question, it is important to first determine who is the best judge
of a manager’s leadership style? Is it the manager her/himself, their
supervisor/line manager, or those who the manager leads? The next section
looks at the data provided from a range of assessors, gathered in the process
of 360/multi-rater feedback.
The Assessment of Leadership Using 360/Multi-Rater Feedback
Given the greater emphasis that transformational leadership ascribes to the
impact of a manager's behaviour on their staff, it is not surprising that any
leadership development process should involve followers' assessments of
their manager's style and its impact on their motivation, satisfaction and
performance. Thus, the notion of 360/multi-rater feedback (MRF) was
introduced into organisations. The process of 360/MRF might be based on
the ratings of managers' competencies, leadership style, or personal
dispositional dimensions. This paper will focus primarily on the use of 360 to
assess leadership style.
With the growth of 360-feedback, research began to focus on data collected
from the range of individuals who assess the manager, typically, their line
manager, some peers, and some of the staff whom they manage. Several
studies have inspected the relationship between managers' self-perceptions
with those of their boss, colleagues, and staff, with a high degree of
consistency emerging in such research, including the following findings:
Managers, in general tend to rate themselves higher in management
competence and leadership effectiveness than do their colleagues who also
rate them - (e.g., Podsakoff & Organ, 1986; Church, 1998). (A caveat will be
added to this statement below).
Managers' self-ratings are less highly related to the ratings others make of
them than peers' bosses', and staffs' ratings are with one another; (e.g.,
Harris & Schaubroeck, 1998; Church, 1998; Furnham & Stringfield, 1994)
Managers' self-ratings are less accurate than others' ratings when
compared to 'objective criterion measures' (e.g., Harris and
More 'successful' managers (as rated by their staff and their boss) are less
likely to inflate self-ratings of leadership; (e.g., Bass & Yammarino, 1991;
Atwater & Yammarino, 1997)
The stronger the relationship between a manager's self-perceptions with
that of their staff, the more likely they are to be perceived by their staff as
transformational (e.g., Bass & Avolio, 1994; Bass & Yammarino, 1991;
Smither et al, 1995)
Gender, Leadership, and 360/Multi-Rater Feedback
As was mentioned above, most research findings state that managers tend to
rate themselves higher in competence than do their work-place colleagues.
But most studies have not included sex of managers as a variable either
because this variable was disregarded, or because there were few females in
the samples studied. However, of those that have included sex of manager
as a variable, some have found that women rate themselves lower than their
'others' rate them (e.g., Fletcher, 1998; Wohlers & London, 1989), and lower
than their boss rated them (Wohlers & London, op.cit.). Studies have also
found that there is higher agreement between female managers' self-ratings
and subordinates' ratings of them than was the case for male managers
(London & Wohlers, 1991; Wohlers & London,1989).
With respect to how female and male managers were rated by their
subordinates on the most commonly used US leadership instrument, The
Multi-factor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) in 3 separate samples, Bass &
Avolio (1995), state:
"… female leaders were generally rated higher (by followers both
randomly selected and those chosen by the leader) on leadership
factors that have been shown to predict individual, group, and
organisational performance" (p.26).
In an investigation of anonymous ratings provide by middle level subordinates
of senior female and managers, using the UK-developed Transformational
Leadership Questionnaire (TLQ) (Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe, 2001),
women were found to be rated higher on all of the 14 scales, and significantly
higher on the majority, irrespective of the sex of the subordinate rating the
manager (Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe, 2003). Table 1 shows the results.
Table 1 about here
However, in the same study, gender differences virtually disappeared when
data from a sample of senior managers rating top managers were analysed.
Why do gender differences disappear at the top of the organisation?
Entry into the most senior positions of an organisation, particularly a large
organisation (in the case of the current study, the NHS), will be largely
determined by the criteria for the post, and the perceptions of the top
managers who act as assessors. If these posts are dominated by male top
managers, given the findings cited earlier that there appear to be gender
differences in notions of leadership, then the criteria for selection are likely to
be highly transactional.
There is another reason why these criteria are more likely to reflect
transactional criteria, which relates to research on what bosses/supervisors
are more concerned with assessing managerial potential and performance.
And here is the rub, research shows that bosses/supervisors are more
concerned with transactional behaviours of their managers, rather than
transformational (e.g. Hauenstein and Foti, 1989; Hogan & Hogan, 2001). .
Returning to Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe’s research using the TLQ
(2003), the almost ubiquitous gender differences found amongst female and
male managers at senior levels, all but disappeared when the ratings provided
by senior managers of top managers were examined. Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-
Metcalfe (ibid.) propose several possible reasons, which are certainly not
- Is being seen as predominantly transactional in one’s
behaviour a role requirement of being promoted into a top
- Are the selection criteria for top positions biased towards the
style of leadership of the dominant group, i.e. white males?
- Is only transactional behaviour rewarded in top positions?
- Do women and men act like their transactional
- Does the culture at the top and senior levels require the
adoption of an almost exclusively transactional style?
- Do top and senior managers become socialised into
internalising different value systems?
Whose views should determine criteria for effective leadership?
The research on leadership places greatest importance on subordinates'
views, as explained earlier in this paper. Yet the people who play the greatest
role in selection, access to development opportunities, and promotion
decisions, are bosses/line managers. But the question must be asked, ‘Are
staff valid judges of their manager’s leadership effectiveness?’
According to a study which compared the predictive validity of scores obtained
by managers who had undertaken and Assessment Centre, with the
anonymous ratings of the managers’ staff, it was the staff’s ratings that better
predicted the managers’ effectiveness, 2 years, and 4 years later (McEvoy &
Beatty, 1989). So impressed were the researchers with the predictive validity
of the subordinates' ratings, that they concluded:
"This study places subordinates' ratings in the upper echelons of
predictors of managerial performance, along with … assessment
Might this help illuminate the apparent inconsistencies in assessments made
of women and men in management?
The chances of replacing bosses’/supervisors’ criteria of leadership with those
of staff, is probably remote; we would propose that both sources of criteria
should be adopted, together with criteria elicited from other important
stakeholders internal and external to the organisation. However, there is yet
another dimension to the potential bias which women may experience in
relation to their performance evaluation in management. This relates to
attribution of performance.
There is a body of evidence that finds that the notions of what men, in
general, believe characterise an effective manager, are strongly related to the
characteristics they associate with men, but entirely unrelated to the
characteristics they associate with women in general (Schein, 1994). Hence,
the fact that a female working in a traditionally ‘masculine’ job, but who has
apparently succeeded in her job, creates ‘cognitive dissonance’ in the minds
of a male boss/assessor. Given the need to reduce this apparent
‘dissonance’, a different attribution may be made of why she is successful,
despite being a non-tradition occupant – namely, a female! This may lead to
success being attributed to external unstable factors, such as ‘luck’ or having
had to put in extra effort, rather the cause being attributed to a stable internal
cause, such as ‘ability’. The evidence in the field of management and
leadership, is that this has been found to be the case (e.g. (Deaux &
Emswiller, 1974). Other papers in this symposium focus on the potential
barriers these may create for women’s advancement into senior management.
How can we encourage organisations to consider the implications of the
gender bias in assessments of leadership & management?
How can we change the attitudes of top managers? When will organisations
recognise the folly of under-utilising the wealth of talents offered by female
managers, and transformational males? Sadly, there is as yet, little cause for
optimism, since in a separate study, it found that the major block to the
success of leadership initiatives in private and public sector organisations
(Alimo-Metcalfe et al., 2000), were to do with the attitudes of the most senior
managers. They did not recognise a personal need for leadership
development, but sent their middle managers on such events; they role-
modelled leadership styles which contradicted the models being developed on
such programmes; and they did not support the enthusiastic suggestions and
initiatives proposed by the middle managers, on their return to the
We have taken another approach to trying to influence existing gender-biased
notions of leadership, which was to undertake the first gender- and ethnic-
inclusive investigation of leadership (Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe, 2001,
2002a,b; 2003). From this study, a new model of transformational leadership
emerged, which closely reflects the tenors of leadership described by
Greenleaf (1970) in his book ‘The Servant as Leader’. It is interesting to note
the increasing criticism or questioning of the validity and value of the dominant
US ‘heroic’ notions of leadership (e.g. Gronn, 1995).
The 360-feedback instrument that was developed from the research, The
Transformational Leadership Questionnaire (TLQ), comprises 14 scales.
Whilst its use as a 360 instrument is strictly for developmental purposes,
organisations can adopt the scales as additional criteria for selection,
promotion, and appraisal processes.
Our approach in supporting the transformation of organisations, is to
encourage senior managers, and HR professional who advise them, to reflect
on the implications of ignoring the importance of transformational leadership
when identifying criteria for recruitment, selection, promotion, appraisal, etc.. If
transformational leadership, which has been found to predict individual, group,
and organisational performance, is ultimately concerned with a manager's
impact on the motivation, satisfaction, commitment and performance of staff,
and moreover women have been consistently identified as obtaining higher
ratings of such by staff, then should we not be seriously concerned with the
emphasis placed, unquestioningly, soley on bosses' criteria of effectiveness,
given the findings that these are likely to focus almost exclusively on the
transactional elements of management?
We need to encourage organisations to consider seeking criteria from a range
of other individuals, including the staff who will report to the manager, peers
with whom they will work in teams, and other internal, as well as external,
stakeholders. We need also to ensure that assessors are selected on the
basis that they understand the importance of transformational, as well as
transactional, leadership, and are suitably trained in observation techniques.
The assessment procedures adopted by organisations, including
employment/selection interviews and Assessment centres, need to assess
both transactional and transformational leadership.
Implications for Organisations
The implications for organisations, of the issues being discussed in this
symposium, are immense. There is substantial research that supports the
notion that the transformational style is significantly more effective than the
transactional style alone (e.g. Bass, 1998). But those in top positions who are
the ‘gatekeepers’ by virtue of playing key roles in promoting and selecting
managers at top levels, are likely to be male (90% of such posts are held by
men in the UK), and therefore, may be more transactional.
This paper has sought to summarise some of the undoubtedly complex
findings from research on gender and the assessment of leadership.
It seeks to offer some possible reasons why the various assessment
techniques adopted by organisations to assess women in management may
be gender biased. It also draws attention to the dangers of relying solely on
bosses' assessments of managerial performance, or their notions of
leadership. Times are changing. There is increased cynicism with the lack of
integrity and leadership of top managers, evidenced by recent high-profile
cases of poor corporate governance, and the sudden collapse of previously
successful organisations. To transform the culture of organisations, we must
ensure that the models they adopt of leadership that inform their selection,
promotion, development, and other people processes, reflect the values and
perspectives of an inclusive, diverse society. Those organisations that grasp
the challenge will undoubtedly reap the benefits.
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