Senior women feel less supported in developing leadership skills, poll finds

Experts say female workers still get more ‘vague’ feedback not tied to business outcomes than their male counterparts

Senior women are more likely than their male peers to say their employer isn’t doing enough to support their leadership development, research has found, as experts say HR teams need to do more to level the playing field.

A poll of 1,000 senior business leaders found four in five women (79 per cent) said their organisation did not provide them with the time or resources to develop their own leadership skills. In comparison, just two-thirds of men felt the same way.

The survey also found differences between men and women over who they thought was responsible for updating leadership skills: 55 per cent of men said they felt this responsibility lay with the individual, compared to 46 per cent of women.

Conversely, more women than men believed it was the responsibility of the HR department to help staff keep their leadership skills up to date (36 and 23 per cent respectively).

Ruth Sealy, professor of responsible leadership at the University of Exeter Business School, said that while progress has “undoubtedly” been made in the past decade, leadership was still “gendered” in workplaces.

“Individuals, organisations and society still have so many biases that are played out and therefore reinforced on a daily basis,” she said.

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“Research on performance reviews shows us women get more vague feedback, not tied to specific business outcomes, than men, and are significantly more likely to be critiqued for being ‘too aggressive’ than men, which is based on our gender role stereotypes,” Sealy said.

But, she said, in the last couple of years there has been more conversation about the need for more “authentic, empathetic and compassionate leadership”.

“Leaders showing these traits, traditionally perceived as more feminine, have received much praise during the pandemic. So it will be interesting to watch how our ideals of leadership shift to more people and purpose-focused responsible leadership.”

The responsibility for levelling the playing field when it comes to leadership development lies with the senior leadership of organisations, supported by HR, said Elena Doldor, associate professor in organisational behaviour at Queen Mary University of London, said that HR alongside senior leadership had a responsibility to level the playing field when it came to leadership development.

“Leadership skills are nurtured through both formal and informal means, and research consistently shows that informal opportunities for leadership development – for example sponsorship, useful developmental feedback, mentorship on being politically savvy – tend to be less accessible to women. 

“Male employees might see formal HR support for leadership development as less important because they have easier access to those informal opportunities,” she added.

Doug Baird, chief executive of New Street Consulting Group, said it was “concerning” that women felt less supported than men in developing leadership skills. “This will inevitably leave talented people behind and heighten the overall leadership skills gap,” he said.