In a crisis, we cling for dear life to a great leader – a statesman or a director who knows which way things should go. At least, that’s what’s often thought. However, research by University of Groningen business experts Prof. Janka Stoker and Dr Floor Rink has shown that people with a university education actually need leaders who empathize, listen and are not authoritarian. Typical male power struggles and grabbing behaviour are what caused the current economic crisis in the first place. What we now want is more women in control.
Is there anyone left who would dare to deny it? There are not enough women in high administrative positions in the Netherlands. Floor Rink: ‘Everyone knows that it’s good to strive for diversity from a moral point of view. A company or an organization should mirror society. However, not many people know that diversity is also good for performance. There is an increasing amount of research that proves this – companies where men and women share the leadership perform better.’
People with a university education apparently sense that female leadership has added value – in times of crisis they prefer to see a woman in charge. This has been revealed by research by Stoker and Rink among 1700 readers of Intermediair. During the research, they presented the graduates with a number of dilemmas. For example: ‘The well-known software company ATS is not doing well. There are two suitable candidates for the vacant CEO position, with virtually the same training and management experience. One is called John and the other Judith. Which would you choose?’ No fewer than 83% of those interviewed chose the female manager. Rink: ‘The preference for diversity in leadership in times of crisis has been demonstrated often – in different countries and at different organizations. However, this is the first investigation of what underlies this preference. Our research reveals this. People with a university education in times of crisis prefer to have a female manager because they think that women are in general better able to listen, are less directive and allow staff to contribute to thinking about the course the company should follow.’
But boardrooms and old boys’ networks often have other ideas. Women only complicate matters, is the opinion there. Janka Stoker: ‘If you all think the same way, then management is easy. You understand each other and a nod is as good as a wink. If a woman suddenly arrives on a male board, things get more complicated. Diversity (men and women) has added value, but particularly at first it’s just more difficult, and not enjoyable.' Incidentally, as long as there are only a few women on a board, the culture will hardly change. On her own among a hundred men, a female manager is going to swiftly display male management traits. Or else she’s going to get frustrated that her contribution is not appreciated and resign.
Because women often end up in higher management positions in times of crisis and because they end up on their own amidst a host of men, the chances of failure are high. They’ve finally broken through the glass ceiling but end up on what is called a glass cliff. Before they know what is happening, the men are ruling the roost again. Stoker: ‘Jeroen Smit, author of De prooi [The Prey], recently said something about this when he was voted University of Groningen alumnus of the year. The only way to really change management cultures is to establish a quota system for the top.’ Rink agrees. ‘A management board has to comprise at least twenty percent women, research has revealed. Their contribution just can’t get off the ground with smaller percentages.’
The fact that so few women are in high management positions is not the women’s fault, but the fault of the organizations for not appointing them, think Stoker and Rink. There are more than enough talented top females and they would really like those top positions. Rink: ‘The fact that women often say they have no ambition is usually a psychological defence mechanism. Once you notice that your input is not valued, you withdraw and say that you don’t think that work is all that important. If you go on questioning, though, it turns out that women are definitely ambitious, but they have been confronted by too many difficulties. That’s what we should be doing something about.’
Prof. Janka Stoker (1970) studied psychology at the University of Groningen and gained her PhD from the University of Twente with a thesis entitled Leidinggeven aan zelfstandige taakgroepen [Managing independent task groups]. In 2003 Stoker became professor by special appointment in Leadership and Organizational Change at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen. She is also a senior management consultant for organization and advisory bureau Berenschot, where she works for the Change Management advice group, active in the field of strategy implementation and organizational change.Dr Floor Rink (1975) graduated in organizational psychology at the University of Groningen and was awarded her PhD with distinction in the same field by the University of Leiden. She is currently a Rosalind Franklin Fellow at the Faculty of Economics and Business, where she studies the social-psychological mechanisms underlying group decisions and group behaviour. She is particularly interested in the influence of diversity, identity processes and newcomers on the functioning of teams.
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