How to encourage more women to become leaders

Why is only one in twenty CEOs in the European Union a woman? Do women not aspire to become leaders or are there other reasons for a lack of women at the top? Those were the questions PhD candidate Claudia Erlemann from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) set out to answer. In her research she found that female leadership aspiration can be stimulated by changing the organisational environment. Erlemann’s conclusions provide worthwhile insights into what companies can do today to enhance women’s motivation for leadership positions.

Claudia Erlemann first studied among 400 men and women whether and how supervisor gender might influence leadership aspiration in women. Her findings expose the chicken-and-egg situation behind female leadership: it takes more female leaders to create more female leaders, she found. Women reporting to a female supervisor feel they receive more support from their supervisor. They also experience more autonomy in how to organise their job under a female supervisor. Both encourages women to develop leadership aspiration, found the RSM PhD candidate.

Identification with the company
One often-heard presumption in the debate about female leadership is that women are less likely to lead because of their communal nature: they are more ’caring’, ’considerate’ and ’nice’. Leadership is characterised by rather opposite, rather male attributes, such as ’being strong’, ’rigorous’ or ’dominant’. But Erlemann says her results show these communal characteristics do not have to stand in the way of women wanting to become leaders. When women identify with the organisation, their leadership aspiration is triggered, Erlemann’s results show. Because a company’s attractiveness and external image can stimulate identification with it, companies should invest time and effort in a suitable PR as well as employer branding strategy.

Co-operative climate
The results of Erlemann’s research also show that a co-operative climate in the organisation helps to stimulate leadership ambitions in both genders, but it does so differently in men and women. Men are generally more likely to define themselves in terms of the groups they belong to, so for them a collective co-operative climate within the company fuels their leadership aspiration. Women mostly use their close relationships to define themselves. That’s why their leadership aspiration is more positively influenced by a co-operative climate among their close relationships, such as co-workers.

Work-life initiatives
On average, women face more domestic and childcare responsibilities than men. These private demands represent an additional barrier for female leadership. To ease the integration between the work and private life, companies can offer work-life initiatives, such as flexible working hours or on-site childcare. Erlemann expected and showed that these work-life initiatives do not only facilitate this work and private integration, but also that they lead to more women wanting to have a leadership position.

Now what?
Erlemann says her research shows that appointing more female leaders is essential as they have an important impact on female aspiration to become a leader. Also, human resources departments play a crucial role to assess and improve the organisational environment in terms of availability of work-life initiatives, identification and climate. Finally, companies should hold managers and supervisors accountable for metrics measuring the organisational environment conditions to create an environment that stimulates women’s leadership aspiration, she concludes.

Claudia Erlemann will defend her dissertation in the Senate Hall at Erasmus University Rotterdam on Thursday, 25 February 2016. 

More information

For more information on RSM or on this release, please contact Ramses Singeling, Media Officer for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028, or by e-mail at

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