The “glass ceiling” is still very much in force.
Despite efforts that emphasize the recruitment and development of female business leadership, as well as fair practices and elimination of bias, women still remain under-represented in top leadership levels of major businesses.
One pair of researchers discovered a facet of human psychology which may unlock the potential for women trying to advance in a competitive business setting.
The researchers, Jessica Sim (Professor at University of Wisconsin) and Zoe Kinias (Professor at INSEAD), studied two groups of incoming MBA students. They paid close attention to the effect of a particular writing exercise that was part of an orientation activity. Each group was asked to write about values. One group was instructed to focus on personal values, while the other wrote about values in general (also comprising institutional values). The results gleaned from the study were telling.
The focus of the research was how the gender gap was affected by whether a student focused on her own core values. Regular reinforcement of core values, for one group, continued throughout the academic quarter and into exam week.
It was found that the group of women who focused on general values, had a lower GPA overall than their male counterparts. However, those who focused on their own core/personal values scored equally as high as the men.
What the study reveals is a basic human condition: we strive to maintain a feeling of self-worth. Humans want respect from their peers, and they want to know that they are living a meaningful life.
Taken a step further, the study points out how members of certain groups are sometimes devalued in their professional or academic lives. For professional women who see a business culture where women aren’t equally represented at senior levels, the effect can be demoralizing. The resulting self-doubt interferes with performance and leads to a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.”
Groups known to experience stereotype threat include women in mathematics, white men playing basketball, and also women and minorities in the work environment.
Groups who are encouraged to review their core values show a resilience against threats to their self-worth. In other words, the increased feelings of self worth negate the effect of the stereotype threat.
Sim and Kinias believe the results of the study can be a major step toward advancing the careers of women and minorities in a business setting. Even more importantly, the researchers are fine-tuning their findings in an effort to apply them to other settings.
Both women want to try to implement some form of organizational interventions that can help erase gaps in pay and achievement in the workplace. They hope that increased intervention can help shield women and minorities from the harm caused by stereotype threats, thereby giving women more tools in their efforts to break through the glass ceiling.