Small group of young women meeting in an office

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Helping young women see themselves as leaders

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Focusing on younger women and helping them develop a leadership identity earlier in their careers, could be key to redressing the gender imbalance in senior roles.

Professor Susan Murphy
Professor Susan Murphy

Research conducted by Professor Susan Murphy, Chair in Leadership Development at the University of Edinburgh Business School, highlighted that self views and stereotype threats can cause women to hold themselves back.

Following a successful leadership development programme, run for more than 200 female executives over four years, Professor Murphy advocates addressing these mental roadblocks in younger women, before they become entrenched.

“I think there are probably a lot of women with high potential whose skillsets are not recognised,” she says. “Women who find advancing difficult for different reasons, whether that’s discrimination, diminishing opportunities, or just not putting themselves forward for promotion because they don’t have the confidence.

“I think if we target younger women and start exploring leadership with them and what their leadership style is, in their early 30s as they’re getting into their first leadership roles, that would make a difference in gender balance and gender pay issues.

“Women’s pay inequity isn’t exclusively about women being paid unequally for the same work. Pay differences occur when women are absent from higher paying managerial levels or from higher paying industries that often have large gender imbalances.”

Better leaders

Professor Murphy began to develop her ideas while working at the University of Washington in Seattle, researching how different leaders perform under pressure. “Smarter leaders, under pressure, weren’t necessarily doing better,” she says.

“One of the things I looked at was this idea that once you move into leadership and gain lots and lots of experience, not only does that experience make you a better leader but it helps you deal better with stress.

“Under pressure your thinking, your intelligence, your ability to work through problems and situations can be diminished when you’re so focused on the stressor that you are experiencing. But, if you’ve had repeated experience in a situation, then it becomes instinctive. It’s like riding a bicycle – even if you’re under stress, you remember how to ride a bicycle.”

Professor Murphy developed a self efficacy for leadership scale, grounded in the idea that individuals who had good leadership experiences built up a confidence and effectiveness that helped them perform in their roles even under stress.

“We did a large study looking at managers in the Department of Transportation in the state of Washington. There were quite a few women managers and one of the things I noticed was that in their performance reviews the women were rated, overall, as better leaders – more transformational, more considerate, more agentic, all these things that constitute effectiveness.

“But then when I looked at their self efficacy for leadership, I noticed it was quite a bit lower. How could they be performing so well but at the same time have this low efficacy for leadership? We started talking about the things that could interfere with one’s efficacy and one of the things we landed on was this idea of stereotype threat.”

Stereotype threat

A stereotype threat comes from the fear of conforming to negative stereotypes about one’s social identity and this distracts and concerns the individual so much that they lose focus and prevent themselves from performing to their full potential.

“At the time, stereotype threat was being looked at with respect to minority students and standardised testing,” explains Professor Murphy.

“Just by the sheer menacing point of asking a student for their race at the beginning of a standardised test, students would perform worse than they would have if you didn’t ask them for their race. In other situations, if you then told white American male students, for example, that on average Asian American students do better in maths, their maths scores would plummet.

“We thought maybe there was something similar going on with women when they’re in an organisation with very few other women, or in a male-dominated industry, that creates an ongoing condition of stereotype threat.”

Professor Murphy compared how female leaders performed with all male, mixed or all female teams to demonstrate that women-only programmes and female role models and networks might help women more freely develop their leadership skills and confidence.

“What helps women feel less stereotype threat? We know for many women when they walk into an all-male group that they may feel less confident, experience more anxiety. They might even perform worse on the tasks because they are thinking ‘I’m the only woman in this situation’. This has often been the plight of the ‘token’. They have the responsibility for representing all the members of their social identity group.

“What we found, was that importance of self efficacy for leadership. If women had high levels of self efficacy, then not only when they saw the all-male groups did they not feel stressed, they actually outperformed the non-threatened groups. For those women, it was like a rebound effect that said I’ve got the mettle, I’ve got the strength to show them and I’m going to do well.

Young women in a planning meeting

“It became this idea of thinking about women in vulnerable positions across organisations and thinking about how to increase their self efficacy through leadership experience, particularly stressful leadership experiences, and confidence building exercises.”

Executive education

At the University of Edinburgh Business School, Professor Murphy worked with Judy Wagner, co-founder of Scottish executive search firm FWB Park Brown, to co-create the Women’s Executive Leadership Programme. This ran annually from 2016 to 2019, delivering a conventional non-gendered executive education programme in a women-only environment.

This allowed women to learn and develop their leadership capabilities and self efficacy in an environment free of the risk of stereotype threat. “It provided this space where women didn’t need to feel nervous about being the sole representative of their gender,” Professor Murphy says.

“In fact, we didn’t even really talk about gender. For the content, we provided topics we typically would for a strategic leadership programme. Then, if someone wanted to have a conversation around why they found it hard to be strategic, and maybe that was gender related, we might talk about that, but it wasn’t ever really the focus.”

The programme recruited women from organisations such as RBS, Diageo, Standard Life, Ernst and Young, Scottish Water, and SSE as well as the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and the City of Edinburgh Council. Participants mainly held upper middle management positions and were seeking executive roles.

Turning point

The programme has been described as a ‘turning point’ that allowed women ‘to compete as themselves and succeed’. One senior executive from an investment management company that placed delegates on the programme concluded: “Underpinned by Susan Murphy’s research, [it] has been beneficial to the participants, their organisations, and, more broadly, to corporate Scotland. It has ushered in new expectations and ways of working, and has changed the conversation around diversity and leadership in the workplace.”

Participants said the programme increased their confidence in their leadership abilities and improved their communication, strategic leadership and thinking, decision making, team leadership, and networking skills. Many felt they left with higher career aspirations and have subsequently seen substantial career development.

In 2020, a survey of programme participants found 62 per cent of respondents had secured a new job with increased responsibilities or been promoted internally. Three-quarters of these said the programme had a direct influence on their success.

Small group of female executives meeting

A spokesperson for FWB Park Brown said: “I do not say this lightly, but Professor Murphy’s research has directly contributed to participants achieving impressive career promotions, which would probably not have happened had they not attended the programme.”

I’m one of them

Professor Murphy believes one of the benefits of the programme’s approach was the impact of demonstrating to women that they were not alone: “They’re used to being the lone woman, or one of very few women, in an organisation, then you get them in this room of 40, 50, even 60 women. Now they’re thinking look at all of these women, they’re so smart, they’ve got huge jobs, they’re going places. I’m one of them. That inspiration from mixing with other high-level women can’t be discounted.

“We brought a lot of women speakers in who were really honest about their experiences. Birna Einarsdóttir, graduate of our MBA programme, who’s CEO of Íslandsbanki and took over the bank right after the collapse of Iceland’s economy, came in. She recalled she was Head of Marketing when everybody was going for CEO but she looked at their resumes and just said ‘oh this is ridiculous; I think I would do well as the CEO now’ and went for it. She hadn’t even thought about it before. The way she made everything so down to earth and talked about her decision was quite compelling.

“There’s a demystification happening when women hear other women talk about how they’ve done things, how they made it and how it worked out. That breeds confidence across women in the room. They talked about that as well in our interviews – having that safe space where they knew they weren’t going to be judged as the only woman in the room or the only woman on the team. They felt more confident and able to practice that new type of communication.”

As well as benefitting women, the programme has provided insights for a new mixed gender leadership programme. Professor Murphy said: “From the lessons we learned in the women’s programme, we were able to introduce a new online programme last May for men and women with almost 70 senior leaders attending. We are planning to offer it in person starting in September 2022.”

Peer support

Building on the momentum of the programme led to the development of a successful peer support network. The Executive Women in Leadership Network, launched in 2020, provides ongoing support through an online portal where information can be shared, issues explored and problems discussed. “They’re networking organically now,” Professor Murphy says.

“Stereotype threat is what sometimes keeps women from helping other women but I think these women now stand as our role models. There may only be a couple of hundred of them but we’re trying to figure out ways through the network to start reaching out to younger people and offering support and different sorts of programmes.”

Two young women being mentored

The network connects an active and engaged community. One senior financial services executive describes it as a “high trust environment” supporting members “dealing with complicated workplace situations” and playing an important recruitment role that “facilitates referrals for networks looking for talented people”.


Professor Murphy thinks it’s appropriate now for the learnings from the programme to be refocused on the next generation.

“I think we want to reinvent the programme going forward,” she says. “We do think the original programme has served its purpose for those women who participated and we would like to pitch a more entry level programme for women thinking about their careers and their leadership journey. Given that most people in their careers will lead teams or projects, it is never too early to start thinking about the type of leader they want to become.”

“But when you don’t have a role model and somebody says to you, ‘will you be the Chief Sustainability Officer’, as a woman you say I don’t know, I don’t know how it works, I haven’t seen anybody do this. Those are the women we need to hit.”