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Why men still get more promotions than women

  • Catalyst, Inc.


Though companies now invest heavily in mentoring and developing their best female talent, all that attention doesn't translate into promotions. A Catalyst survey of over 4000 high potentials shows that more women than men have mentors-yet women are paid $4600 less in their first post-MBA jobs, hold lower-level positions, and feel less career satisfaction. To better understand why, the authors conducted in-depth interviews with 40 participants in a mentoring program at a large multinational. All mentoring is not created equal, they discovered. Only sponsorship involves advocacy for advancement. The interviews and survey alike indicate that, compared with their male peers, high-potential women are overmentored, undersponsored, and not advancing in their organizations. Without sponsorship, women not only are less likely than men to be appointed to top roles but may also be more reluctant to go for them. Organizations such as Deutsche Bank, Unilever, Sodexo, and IBM Europe have established sponsorship programs to facilitate the promotion of high-potential women. Programs that get results clarify and communicate their goals, match sponsors and mentees on the basis of those goals, coordinate corporate and regional efforts, train sponsors, and hold those sponsors accountable.
Why Men Still Get
More Promotions
Than Women
by Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and
Christine Silva
Included with this full-text
Harvard Business Review
Idea in Brief—the core idea
Article Summary
Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women
Your h i g h-potential females
need more than just well-
meaning mentors.
Reprint R1009F
Why Men Still Get More Promotions
Than Women
page 1
Idea in Brief
Although women are mentored, they’re not
being promoted. A Catalyst study of more
than 4,000 high potentials shows that more
women than men have mentors—yet
women are
likely to advance in their ca-
reers. That’s because they’re not actively
sponsored the way the men are.
Sponsors go beyond giving feedback and
advice; they advocate for their mentees and
help them gain visibility in the company.
They fight to get their protégés to the next
Organizations such as Deutsche Bank, Uni-
lever, Sodexo, and IBM Europe have estab-
lished sponsorship programs to facilitate
the promotion of high-potential women.
Programs that get results clarify and com-
municate goals, match sponsors and ment-
ees on the basis of those goals, coordinate
corporate and regional efforts, train spon-
sors, and hold sponsors accountable.
Why Men Still Get
More Promotions
Than Women
by Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and
Christine Silva
harvard business review • september 2010 page 2
Your h ig h-potential females need more than just well-meaning
Nathalie (all names in this article are dis-
guised), a senior marketing manager at a mul-
tinational consumer goods company and a
contender for chairman in her country, was
advised by her boss to raise her profile locally.
An excellent intracompany network wouldn’t
be enough to land her the new role, he told
her; she must also become active in events and
associations in her region. Recently matched
with a high-level mentor through a company-
wide program, she had barely completed the
lengthy prework assigned for that when she
received an invitation to an exclusive execu-
tive-training program for high potentials—for
which she was asked to fill out more self-as-
sessments and career-planning documents.
“I’d been here for 12 years, and nothing hap-
pened, observes Nathalie. “Now I am being
mentored to death.
Amy, a midlevel sales manager for the same
firm, struggles with a similar problem: “My
mentor’s idea of a development plan is how
many external and internal meetings I can get
exposure to, what presentations I can go to and
deliver, and what meetings I can travel to, she
says. “I just hate these things that add work. I
hate to say it, but I am so busy. I have three
kids. On top of that, what my current boss re-
ally wants me to do is to focus on ‘break-
through thinking, and I agree. I am going to be
in a wheelchair by the time I get to be vice
president, because they are going to drill me
into the ground with all these extra-credit
With turnover sky-high in the company’s fast-
growing Chinese market, Julie, a much-valued
finance manager with growth potential, has
likewise undergone intensive mentoring—and
she worries that she may be getting caught be-
twixt and between. When she was nominated
for a high-potential program, her boss com-
plained that the corporate team was interfer-
ing with the mentoring operation he was al-
ready running in the region. Julie also took
part in a less formal scheme pairing junior and
senior finance leaders. “I’d prefer to be in-
volved in the corporate program because it is
more high-profile, says Julie, “but it all adds up
Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women
harvard business review • september 2010 page 3
to a lot of mentoring.
Nathalie, Amy, and Julie are not atypical. As
companies continue to see their pipelines leak
at mid-to-senior levels even though they’ve in-
vested considerable time and resources in men-
tors and developmental opportunities, they are
actively searching for ways to retain their best
female talent. In a 2010 World Economic
Forum report on corporate practices for gen-
der diversity in 20 countries, 59% of the com-
panies surveyed say they offer internally led
mentoring and networking programs, and 28%
say they have women-specific programs. But
does all this effort translate into actual promo-
tions and appointments for both sexes?
The numbers suggest not. A 2008 Catalyst
survey of more than 4,000 full-time-employed
men and women—high potentials who gradu-
ated from top MBA programs worldwide from
1996 to 2007—shows that the women are paid
$4,600 less in their first post-MBA jobs, occupy
lower-level management positions, and have
significantly less career satisfaction than their
male counterparts with the same education.
That’s also the case when we take into account
factors such as their industry, prior work expe-
rience, aspirations, and whether they have chil-
dren. (For more findings, see Nancy M. Carter
and Christine Silva, “Women in Management:
Delusions of Progress, HBR March 2010.) Yet
among that same group, more women than
men report having mentors. If the women are
being mentored so thoroughly, why aren’t they
moving into higher management positions?
To better understand what is going on, we
conducted in-depth interviews with 40 high-
potential men and women (including Nath-
alie, Amy, and Julie) who were selected by
their large multinational company to partici-
pate in its high-level mentoring program. We
asked about the hurdles they’ve faced as
they’ve moved into more-senior roles, as well
as what kinds of help and support they’ve re-
ceived for their transitions. We also analyzed
the 2008 survey to uncover any differences in
how men and women are mentored and in the
effects of their mentoring on advancement.
Last, we compared those data with the results
of a 2010 survey of the same population, in
which we asked participants to report on pro-
motions and lateral moves since 2008.
All mentoring is not created equal, we discov-
ered. There is a special kind of relationship—
called sponsorship—in which the mentor goes
beyond giving feedback and advice and uses his
or her influence with senior executives to advo-
cate for the mentee. Our interviews and surveys
alike suggest that high-potential women are
overmentored and undersponsored relative to
their male peers—and that they are not advanc-
ing in their organizations. Furthermore, with-
out sponsorship, women not only are less likely
than men to be appointed to top roles but may
also be more reluctant to go for them.
Why Mentoring Fails Women
Although more women than men in the 2008
Catalyst survey report having mentors, the
women’s mentors have less organizational
clout. We find this to be true even after con-
trolling for the fact that women start in lower-
level positions post-MBA. That’s a real disad-
vantage, the study shows, because the more se-
nior the mentor, the faster the mentee’s career
advancement. Despite all the effort that has
gone into developing the women since 2008,
the follow-up survey in 2010 reveals that the
men have received 15% more promotions. The
two groups have had similar numbers of lat-
eral moves (same-level job assignments in dif-
ferent functions, designed to give high poten-
tials exposure to various parts of the business).
But men were receiving promotions after the
lateral moves; for the women, the moves were
offered in lieu of advancement.
Of course, the ultimate test of the power of
mentoring would be to show that its presence
during the 2008 survey is a statistically signifi-
cant predictor of promotion by the time of the
2010 survey. That’s true for the men but not for
the women. Though women may be getting
support and guidance, mentoring relationships
aren’t leading to nearly as many promotions
for them as for men.
The survey findings are echoed in our in-
terviews: Men and women alike say they get
valuable career advice from their mentors,
but it’s mostly men who describe being spon-
sored. Many women explain how mentoring
relationships have helped them understand
themselves, their preferred styles of operat-
ing, and ways they might need to change as
they move up the leadership pipeline. By
contrast, men tell stories about how their
bosses and informal mentors have helped
them plan their moves and take charge in
new roles, in addition to endorsing their au-
thority publicly. As one male mentee re-
Herminia Ibarra
(herminia.ibarra@ is a professor of organiza-
tional behavior and the Cora Chaired
Professor of Leadership and Learning at
Insead in Fontainebleau, France, and
the author of
Working Identity: Uncon-
ventional Strategies for Reinventing Your
(Harvard Business Review Press,
Nancy M. Carter
(ncarter@ is the vice president of re-
search at Catalyst, a New York–based
nonprofit that works with businesses
to expand opportunities for women;
she is also a visiting scholar at Insead.
Christine Silva
( is
a director of research at Catalyst.
Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women
harvard business review • september 2010 page 4
counts, in a typical comment:
“My boss said, ‘You are ready for a general
management job. You can do it. Now we need
to find you a job: What are the tricks we need
to figure out? You have to talk to this person
and to that one and that one. They are all exec-
utive committee members. My boss was a net-
work type of a person.... Before he left, he put
me in touch with the head of supply chain,
which is how I managed to get this job.
Not only do the women report few examples
of this kind of endorsement; they also share
numerous stories about how they’ve had to
fight with their mentors to be viewed as ready
for the next role.
Paradoxically, just when women are most
likely to need sponsorship—as they shoot for
the highest-level jobs—they may be least
likely to get it. Women are still perceived as
“risky” appointments for such roles by often
male-dominated committees. In a study of
top-performing CEOs, for instance, the
women were nearly twice as likely as the men
to have been hired from outside the company
(see Morten T. Hansen, Herminia Ibarra, and
Urs Peyer, “The Best-Performing CEOs in the
World, HBR January–February 2010). That
finding suggests that women are less likely to
emerge as winners in their firms’ own CEO
Sponsorship That Works
Impatient with the speed at which women are
reaching the top levels, many leading-edge com-
panies we work with are converging on a new
set of strategies to ensure that high-potential
women are sponsored for the most-senior posts.
Those principles can make all the difference be-
tween a sponsorship program that gets results
and one that simply looks great on paper.
Clarify and communicate the intent of the
It’s hard to do a good job of both
mentoring and sponsoring within the same
program. Often the best mentors—those who
provide caring and altruistic advice and coun-
seling—are not the highfliers who have the in-
fluence to pull people up through the system.
Employees expecting one form of support can
be very disappointed when they get the other.
And companies hoping to do A can find them-
selves with a program that instead does B. To
prevent such problems, they need to clearly
define what they’re trying to accomplish.
At Deutsche Bank, for example, internal re-
search revealed that female managing direc-
tors who left the firm to work for competitors
were not doing so to improve their work/life
balance. Rather, they’d been offered bigger
jobs externally, ones they weren’t considered
for internally. Deutsche Bank responded by
creating a sponsorship program aimed at as-
signing more women to critical posts. It
paired mentees with executive committee
members to increase the female talent pool’s
exposure to the committee and ensure that
the women had influential advocates for pro-
motion. Now, one-third of the participants
are in larger roles than they were in a year
ago, and another third are deemed ready by
senior management and HR to take on
broader responsibilities.
Select and match sponsors and high-potential
women in light of program goals.
When the
objective of a program is career advancement
for high potentials, mentors and sponsors are
typically selected on the basis of position
power. When the goal is personal develop-
ment, matches are made to increase the likeli-
hood of frequent contact and good chemistry.
Unilever has established a program with
the explicit objective of promoting more
high-potential women to the firm’s most-
senior levels. The two key criteria for selecting
the sponsors, all members of Unilever’s senior
ranks, are experience in areas where the high
potentials have developmental gaps, and pres-
ence at the table when the appointment deci-
sions get made. Given the company’s interna-
tional scope and matrix organization, this
means that many of the women do not live
and work in the same location as their spon-
sors. So some don’t spend much face-to-face
time with sponsors, but they do have advo-
cates at promotion time.
Coordinate efforts and involve direct su-
Centrally run mentoring programs
that sidestep direct bosses can inadvertently
communicate that diversity is an HR problem
that requires no effort from the front lines.
Coordination of corporate and local efforts
is especially important when it comes to se-
nior-level participants in whom companies in-
vest significantly. Effective sponsorship does
not stand alone but is one facet of a compre-
hensive program that includes performance
evaluation, training and development, and suc-
cession planning—all of which add up to more
than the sum of the parts. The Deutsche Bank
Are women as likely
as men to get
mentoring? Yes.
They’re actually more so: In the 2008
Catalyst survey,
of women and
76% of men say they’ve had at least
one mentor at some point in their ca-
reers. Indeed,
of women say
they’ve had four or more mentors,
compared with 15% of men.
Does mentoring
provide the same
career benefits to
men and women?
Among survey participants who had
active mentoring relationships in
2008, fully
of the men had re-
ceived one or more promotions by
2010, compared with 65% of the
Do men and
women have the
same kinds of
mentors? No.
In 2008,
of men were actively
mentored by a CEO or another senior
executive, compared with 69% of
More women than men had junior-
level mentors:
of women were
mentored by a nonmanager or a first-
level manager, compared with 4% of
Though both groups had more
male than female mentors on bal-
of women had female men-
tors, whereas only 11% of men did.
Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women
harvard business review • september 2010 page 5
sponsorship program for female managing di-
rectors, for instance, is one piece of a highly tai-
lored initiative that also involves leadership
evaluations, external coaches, and leadership
Train sponsors on the complexities of gen-
der and leadership.
Good sponsorship re-
quires a set of skills and sensibilities that most
companies’ star executives do not necessarily
possess. When you layer on top some of the
complexities of sponsor relationships between
senior men and junior women, you easily have
a recipe for misunderstanding. The strategies
and tactics that helped the men progress in
their careers may not be appealing or even fea-
sible for the women.
A classic case is the challenge of develop-
ing a credible leadership style in a context
where most of the successful role models are
male. One of the women in our research de-
scribes the problem like this: “My mentor ad-
vised me that I should pay more attention to
my strategic influencing skills...but often he
suggests I do things that totally contradict
my personality.” The behavioral styles that
are most valued in traditionally masculine
cultures—and most used as indicators of
“potential”—are often unappealing or un-
natural for high-potential women, whose
sense of authenticity can feel violated by the
tacit leadership requirements.
A further complexity is the famed “double
bind” examined in Alice H. Eagly and Linda L.
Carli’s book
Through the Labyrinth
Business Review Press, 2007) and in the 2007
Catalyst research report “The Double-Bind Di-
lemma for Women in Leadership. Here’s the
problem, in short: The assertive, authorita-
tive, dominant behaviors that people associ-
ate with leadership are frequently deemed
less attractive in women. Male mentors who
have never faced this dilemma themselves
may be hard-pressed to provide useful advice.
As one of our interview participants de-
scribes, even well-intended mentors have
trouble helping women navigate the fine line
between being “not aggressive enough” or
“lacking in presence” and being “too aggres-
sive” or “too controlling. She explains the
challenge of dealing with conflicting expecta-
tions from two different bosses:
“My old boss told me, ‘If you want to move
up, you have to change your style. You are too
brutal, too demanding, too tough, too clear,
and not participative enough.’ My new boss is
different: He drives performance, values speed.
Now I am told, ‘You have to be more demand-
ing.’ I was really working on being more indi-
rect, but now I will try to combine the best of
Male sponsors can be taught to recognize
such gender-related dilemmas. Women in So-
dexo’s reciprocal-mentoring program, for ex-
ample, have been promoted at higher rates
than other high potential women at the com-
pany, in part because the senior male mentors
serve as career sponsors and (thanks to the up-
ward mentoring) learn to manage their uncon-
scious biases.
Hold sponsors accountable.
To fully reap
the benefits of sponsorship, companies must
hold sponsors accountable. At IBM Europe, a
sponsorship program designed for senior
women below the executive level aims to pro-
mote selected participants within one year.
Sponsors, all vice presidents or general man-
agers, are charged with making sure that par-
ticipants are indeed ready within a year. So
they work hard to raise the women’s profiles,
talk up the candidates to decision makers,
and find the high potentials internal projects
that will fill in their skills gaps and make
them promotable. Failure to obtain a promo-
tion is viewed as a failure of the sponsor, not
of the candidate.
Although our data show that formal pro-
grams can be quite effective in getting women
promoted, a potential pitfall is their fixed dura-
tion. Sponsors typically declare victory and
move on after their high potentials advance—
just when they need help to successfully take
charge in their new roles. We know of no pro-
grams designed to shore up participants past
promotion and through the “first 100 days” in
the new position. With that extra bit of atten-
tion, sponsors could help deliver not just pro-
motions but strong transitions.
Although the women we interviewed all come
from the same company, the trends there mir-
ror those at many other firms we’ve worked
with and observed. And the survey responses,
gathered from men and women at hundreds
of firms, also provide strong evidence for gen-
der difference in mentoring outcomes.
More sponsoring may lead to more and
faster promotions for women, but it is not a
magic bullet: There is still much to do to close
Do men and
women get their
mentors in the same
way? Yes.
Most men and women—
of the
groups combined—found their men-
tors on their own, relying on per-
sonal networks. Just
of women
and 16% of men formed their men-
toring relationships with the help of
formal programs.
Does having formal
versus informal
mentoring make
any difference in
terms of
promotions? Yes.
Women who had found mentors
through formal programs had re-
ceived more promotions by 2010
than women who had found mentors
on their own (by a ratio of almost
three to two).
Among all participants who had
found mentors on their own, the men
received more promotions than the
women (again, by a ratio of almost
three to two).
For more on how companies are
providing sponsorship, go to www
Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women
harvard business review • september 2010 page 6
the gap between men’s and women’s advance-
ment. Some improvements—such as support-
ive bosses and inclusive cultures—are a lot
harder to mandate than formal mentoring pro-
grams but essential if those programs are to
have their intended effects. Clearly, however,
the critical first step is to stop overmentoring
and start accountable sponsoring for both
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Mentors and Sponsors: How They Differ
Companies need to make a sharper distinc-
tion between mentoring and sponsorship.
Mentors offer “psychosocial” support for per-
sonal and professional development, plus ca-
reer help that includes advice and coaching,
as Boston University’s Kathy Kram explains
in her pioneering research. Only sponsors ac-
tively advocate for advancement.
“Classical mentoring” (ideal but rare) com-
bines psychosocial and career support. Usu-
ally, though, workers get one or the other—or
if they get both, it’s from different sources.
Analysis of hundreds of studies shows that
people derive more satisfaction from mentor-
ing but need sponsorship. Without sponsor-
ship, a person is likely to be overlooked for
promotion, regardless of his or her compe-
tence and performance—particularly at mid-
career and beyond, when competition for pro-
motions increases.
Can sit at any level in the hierarchy
Provide emotional support, feedback on
how to improve, and other advice
Serve as role models
Help mentees learn to navigate corporate
Strive to increase mentees’ sense of
competence and self-worth
Focus on mentees’ personal and
professional development
Must be senior managers with influence
Give protégés exposure to other execu-
tives who may help their careers
Make sure their people are considered for
promising opportunities and challenging
Protect their protégés from negative
publicity or damaging contact with
senior executives
Fight to get their people promoted
... Women professionals who declare to use networking frequently tend to consider themselves more successful, satisfied, and rewarded (Offermann, Thomas, Lanzo, & Smith, 2020). However, women usually have less access to CEOs who are more influential in the organization (Collins & Val Singh, 2006;Ibarra, Carter, & Silva, 2010). ...
... This required the participation of other agents and the formation of supportive alliances (Bowles et al., 2019). Leadership support and sponsorship is a relevant factor in the career progression for both genders, although it is less accessible to women according to studies on networking (e.g., Collins & Val Singh, 2006;Ibarra et al., 2010). Thus, it was through the establishment of a complex and challenging strategy that the interviewees developed networking and benefited from it. ...
Full-text available
This study analyzes successful leadership claiming actions and factors that enabled the social construction of a leader identity in the trajectories of women in a technology company, a traditionally male segment. These subjects are investigated through a qualitative case study, from a longitudinal perspective with cross-section data collection. The study is based on interviews conducted with female professionals who worked in the company - an environment permeated by important gender issues - carried out in two stages (in 2006 and 2021). The analysis reveals that successful leadership claiming actions among these women were derived from their predominantly agentic posture but endowed with a collaborative and collective orientation, an attribute of commonality. Their competence, hybrid management style, adaptive behavior to the environment, and the support/sponsorship obtained from some of the company’s leaders, were favorable factors for granting leadership to these women.
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Purpose This study aims to address existing gaps in the literature and theories by investigating the influence of responsible leadership traits on employees’ sustainable performance (E-SuPer) in the Malaysian service sector. Specifically, the authors focus on three key responsible leadership traits: relationship building, relational governance and sharing orientation. Additionally, the authors explore how these traits interact with leader-member exchange (LMX) and whether gender plays a role in this relationship. Design/methodology/approach A total of 235 usable responses were analysed using partial least squares structural equation modelling. Multi-group analysis (MGA) was employed to examine the moderating impact of gender. Findings The results showed that both relationship building and relational governance significantly affect E-SuPer among organisations in the service industry. LMX was found to be a significant moderating condition influencing the association between responsible leaders’ sharing orientation and E-SuPer. Interestingly, the MGA results suggest that the effect on male employees was greater than on female employees across the relationships examined. The findings suggest that responsible leadership traits are essential for sustainable employee performance, but there is room for improvement in how these traits are perceived by female employees. Social implications The present study contributes to gender equality agenda, supports the sustainable development goals, adds to the growing body of knowledge on the relationship between responsible leadership traits and E-SuPer within one of the most important economic sectors in Malaysia and sheds lights on the moderating effect of LMX. Originality/value This study investigates how responsible leadership traits affect E-SuPer in the service industry, particularly among male and female employees. Moreover, this study is one of the early investigations into the significance of responsible leadership within Malaysian service sector and offers valuable information for industry actors to improve their management approaches.
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Resumo Este artigo analisa ações de reinvindicação (claiming) de liderança exitosas, assim como fatores que viabilizaram a construção social da identidade de líder nas trajetórias de mulheres inseridas em uma empresa de tecnologia, segmento tradicionalmente masculino. Essas questões são investigadas por meio de um estudo de caso qualitativo de perspectiva longitudinal com corte transversal baseado em entrevistas conduzidas com profissionais mulheres que atuaram na organização considerada - ambiente permeado por importantes aspectos relacionais de gênero - realizadas em duas etapas (em 2006 e 2021). A análise revela que as ações de reinvindicação de liderança bem-sucedidas entre essas mulheres derivaram de sua postura predominantemente agêntica, porém dotada de uma orientação colaborativa e coletiva, um atributo de comunalidade. Foram fatores favoráveis para a concessão da liderança (granting) a elas as competências, o estilo de gestão híbrido e o comportamento adaptativo ao ambiente que demonstraram, bem como o suporte/patrocínio obtido de lideranças da empresa.
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