Monday, February 02, 2009

Gender bias at the top: Harvard Business Review on perception, reputation and reality

The debate on the existence of glass ceiling in the corporate world is endless despite the fact there are outstanding women business leaders.

Among them are the powerful women business leaders like PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, HSBC’s Naina Lal Kidwai, Kinetic’s Sulajja Firodia Motwani, Apollo’s Preetha Reddy and Central Vigilance Commissioner’s Ranjana Kumar (earlier with Indian Bank, Nabard). ICICI Group has three women CEOs: Chanda Kochhar (ICICI Bank), Shikha Sharma (ICICI Prudential Life Insurance) and Renuka Ramnath (ICICI Venture). In the non-corporate sphere, who can forget late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi? In present times, we have Chief Ministers Sheila Dixit (Delhi) and Mayawati (Uttar Pradesh).

However, there are still perception issues regarding women business leaders. Not only in India, but globally.

“Many believe that bias against women lingers in the business world, particularly when it comes to evaluating their leadership ability,” write Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru in Harvard Business Review. “Women are judged to be less visionary than men in 360-degree feedback. It may be a matter of perception, but it stops women from getting to the top… But was this weakness a perception or a reality? How much did it matter to women’s ability to lead? And how could someone not perceived as visionary acquire the right capabilities? As we explored these issues with successful female executives, we arrived at another question: Was a reputation for vision even something many of them wanted to achieve?”

Ibarra and Obodaru’s research comes up with several interesting findings. Their research involved 360-degree evaluations of 2,816 executives from 149 countries enrolled in executive education courses at Insead . Apart from self-assessments, these executives invited their subordinates, peers, supervisors and business associates to evaluate them on a set of leadership dimensions. In all, 22,244 observers participated.

The key findings are: “As a group, women outshone men in most of the leadership dimensions measured,” write Ibarra and Obodaru. “There was one exception, however, and it was a big one: Women scored lower on ‘envisioning’ -- the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise.”

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