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Leaders select copies of themselves. Will the ‘old boys’ networks give in to the ‘new girls’?

Date:08 May 2019
Author:Janka Stoker and Floor Rink
New research examines whether 'new girls' networks could replace 'old boys' networks.
New research examines whether 'new girls' networks could replace 'old boys' networks.

The percentage of women in senior management positions is still rather low. In the Netherlands, a target of securing 30 percent of women in leading positions was legally set down on 1 January 2013 with the Management and Supervision Act (Wet Bestuur en Toezicht or WBT). But it has emerged once again that this target has not been achieved.

Furthermore, the target will be missed again in 2020 if the current pace continues. Education minister Ingrid van Engelshoven has had enough: she has published a benchmark that lists both the companies that do and those that do not meet the targets,  according to the "naming and shaming" principle (Atria, 2019).

One explanation for the slow pace at which women enter leadership positions is the way in which succession issues are dealt with. The stereotype of the "good leader" is still dominant. A good leader is often typified as someone with characteristics considered masculine, such as decisiveness and a result-oriented approach, which bring to mind a man rather than a woman. This has consequences for how we look at male and female candidates for leadership positions. We naturally attribute such characteristics to a man, while we ask ourselves whether a woman has these qualities.

In addition, how well leaders and their potential successors "click" remains important. This is often referred to as the "old boys" network. The idea of this network is that male leaders ensure that they give each other top positions, on the basis of interpersonal fit and informal network structures. The choice of a successor in this network is not determined by someone's qualities, but by the extent to which the successor resembles the current leader. This makes it difficult for women to break in; after all, they are clearly not "one of the boys".

Nevertheless, it appears from the benchmark of Minister Van Engelshoven that there are now organisations in which more than 30% of top positions are filled by women. That led us (Rink, Stoker, Ryan, Steffens & Nederveen Pieterse, 2019) to question whether women, once they are in important positions, also create such informal networks with each other, and also give each other jobs. Would women start providing a "new girls" network and, above all, appoint each other?

In two studies we investigated how men and women in leadership positions look at their successors. We specifically looked at whether they are also guided in their selection decisions by the extent to which they experience an interpersonal fit with their potential successor.

The results of our research provide a clear answer: men are guided by the degree to which potential successors resemble them, and women do not. In our samples, when male leaders did not experience a strong interpersonal fit, they did not consider this potential successor suitable as a leader, regardless of whether that person possessed leadership qualities. The opinion of women about the suitability of their possible successors for a leadership position was in our studies totally unrelated to the extent to which they ‘fit in’ with them.

Our results therefore support the idea that male leaders still follow the principles of the “old boys” network in the manner in which they choose successors. Our research also shows that women select more equitably because they are guided less in their selection decisions by the degree to which a candidate looks like them, and pay particular attention to the qualities and competencies of a potential successor. Consequently, we can expect no emergence of a “new girls" network for the time being, and that is a good thing. Now we have to find a way to get rid of the dismal "old boys" network.

For further reading, you can find the paper here. You can read the original Dutch language version of this blog over at In the Lead.


  • Atria (2019). Benchmark: man-vrouw verhoudingen in raden van bestuur en raden van commissarissen van de 200 grootste Nederlandse bedrijven die vallen onder de Wet Bestuur en Toezicht (Wbt). Atria, Kennisinstituut voor Emancipatie en Vrouwengeschiedenis, februari 2019.
  • Rink, F., Stoker, J. I., Ryan, M., Steffens, N. K. & Nederveen Pieterse, A. (2019, in press). Gender differences in how leaders determine succession potential: The role of interpersonal fit with followers. Frontiers in Psychology.

About the author

Janka Stoker and Floor Rink
Janka Stoker is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the University of Groningen, and director of Expertise Center for Leadership In the LEAD. j.i.stoker
Floor Rink is Professor of Organizational Behavior and Identity Management at the Faculty of Economics and Business. She conducts research into diversity, hierarchical differentiation in groups, staff mobility, and the functioning of management boards. f.a.rink