The impact of organisational climate on women’s leadership aspirations

“Here are the all male nominees for Best Director”Natalie Portman, 2018 Golden Globes

“Many have since sought pay equality through internal negotiation but managers still deny there is a problem”Carrie Gracie, former BBC China editor, in an open letter to the BBC

“Unfortunately, too many centers of power – from legislatures to boardrooms to executive suites and management to academia – lack gender parity and women do not have equal decision-making authority”Letter from Time’s Up campaign, 1 January 2018

These are just three gender equality stories from the past week.

As a business psychologist I’m particularly interested in gender equality in organisational leadership.

At a recent postgraduate lecture I gave, on leadership, we explored and discussed some of the statistics around gender equality, such as:

We also looked through the 2017 Women in the workplace survey, published by McKinsey and Lean In.

Drive, perseverance, resilience and ambition are undoubtedly characteristics that have enabled lots of women to get in to leadership positions. However, a key factor may also be the organisational climate that a woman works in.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, explored exactly this issue. The researchers were interested in the impact of organisational climate on the motivation to lead and women’s leadership aspirations.

The research


A cooperative organisational climate typically sees more social interaction between employees, a greater willingness to share materials, information and/or knowledge. This kind of prosocial behaviour often acts as a precursor to prosocial motivation, namely an orientation toward achieving success as a community and a focus on wellbeing for the collective.

The researchers suggested that women were more predisposed toward building one-to-one interpersonal relationships as a form of co-operation (Co-operative interpersonal climate); and that men tended to co-operate more through group collective work (Co-operative collective climate). If this is, indeed, the case, then it would mean that men are more likely to get involved in projects that would give them more visibility and hence, more opportunity.

To test this out, the researchers conducts an online survey measuring aspects of leadership aspiration, along with co-operative interpersonal and co-operative collective climate.

Over 400 people responded to the survey, with an equal split between men and women. Respondents came from a wide range of professions, with a minimum of three years work experience.

The findings


Overall, the researchers didn’t find anything to suggest that women have lower leadership aspirations than men. Specifically, they found:

  • A collective interpersonal climate encourages and enables women’s leadership aspirations more than it does men’s.
  • A collective collaborative climate encourages and enables men’s leadership aspirations. It has a positive impact on women’s aspirations too.

The researchers summarised it best when they said,

“Co-worker relationships are influential in women’s leadership aspirations”

Implications and solutions


“A new day is on the horizon”Oprah Winfrey, 2018 Golden Globes

Previous research suggests that typical barriers for women include difficulty finding a suitable mentor; having less access to senior leaders; and working in an organisational that is not supportive enough.

In addition, leadership is still often perceived and described in masculine terms.

This can make it more difficult for women to successfully apply for and step in to leadership positions. In some instances, this masculine-oriented description of leadership can lead to a double-bind where if a woman exhibits masculine characteristics she’s labelled as “bossy”, “domineering” and seen as unlikeable. However, if she shows typically feminine characteristics she may be labelled “a pushover”, “too soft” and “too emotional”.

There are several practical things organisations can do to create a climate where women can aspire to leadership positions and have a greater chance of achieving success.

  1. Define the organisational climate you aspire to have and then measure where you are. This will then help you assess the gap between current and future climate and the practical actions you can take to move from one to the other.
  2. Carry out your own research. As we’ve seen from the research described in this post, context is key. Whilst it’s helpful to understand your organisation’s climate, an important aspect for practitioners to get is a deeper understanding of what helps and hinders women specifically in your organisation. Conducting interviews and focus groups with groups of staff (senior leaders, managers and non-managers) will help you see any patterns. It’s important to get the views of women and men.
  3. Share good practice and case studies taking place in your organisation. Once you’ve surveyed your organisational climate you’re likely to see differences in climate at departmental and team level. Identify those teams who are already demonstrating the climate the overall organisation aspires to have. Find out the kind of things they do to enable opportunity and equality and share these with the rest of the organisation.
  4. Create networks that facilitate both interpersonal and collective co-operation. It’s important that networks have members from different levels in the organisation. Research has shown lack of access to senior leaders and decision makers is something that can impede a woman’s motivation and opportunity to lead. And if you have a women’s network in place then make sure you invite men along to participate in discussion topics, otherwise it continues to perpetuate difference. Identify your male supporters and get them involved in helping women achieve leadership aspirations.
  5. Develop your current leaders so they understand more about the factors that help and hinder. Share research, such as this blog post, with organisational decision makers and use it to help facilitate discussions and action plans. Linking it with evidence from your own organisational research can add more weight (see suggestions one and two).
  6. If you have a mentoring scheme review it, if you don’t then implement one. Bearing in mind that women’s leadership aspirations seem to come more from one-to-one interpersonal collaboration, then mentoring is a really important mechanism. For those who have a mentoring scheme in place then you should know what success of the scheme looks like and hence, be measuring those things. For example, do you know those women with mentors who have gone on to secure a more senior role? Key for the success of any mentoring programme is that both mentors and mentees understand their responsibilities and take them seriously.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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