Published on Development Impact

Women on teams and in leadership matters for other women, men, and organizations

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Policies to increase women’s representation within organizations are increasingly common these days. Gender quotas in the corporate sector, for example, have been proposed as a response to the underrepresentation of women in top positions of the corporate sector. In her Coase lecture, Bertrand 2018 discusses affirmative action -- quotas and gender diversity in leadership -- among other policy responses to the underrepresentation of women in the upper part of the earnings distribution. There is some evidence on the mixed effects of Board quotas (Bertrand, Black, Jensen, and Lleras-Muney 2019). But what of other efforts, less at the very top, to increase women’s representation within organizations? The empirical evidence on the impact of these policies – on organizations, and on the men and women who work in them – is still thin. Two recent papers help fill in the evidence gap, looking at two novel angles to these questions: the role of gender composition of teams and impact of female leadership.

Karpowitz, O’Connell, Preece, and Stoddard (2023) (JPE forthcoming, ungated here) lay out a lot of open questions about such policies-- we counted 6 in their 2nd paragraph. To start to answer these questions, they conducted two experiments with undergraduates in the United States. In the first experiment, students in an undergraduate accounting program are assigned to groups with different gender compositions: (i) 1 woman and 4 men, (ii) 3 women and 2 men, or (iii) 5 men (the latter group due to the over-representation of men in the sample). The groups are designed to mimic the work environment in accounting firms: students in the same group attend class together, study together, and – as part of the experiment - conduct a series of incentivized team-building exercises. The latter includes “Survival on the Moon” where the team ranks 15 items in terms of usefulness on moon - a nice way to measure individual and teamwork in an experimental setting.

The second experiment, well designed to dig into the results of the first, assigns students to groups with (i) 2 women and 4 men, (ii) 4 women and 2 men, or (iii) 6 women; and introduces a new treatment: half of the groups in the study sample are randomly selected to have a male leader, while the remaining half are selected to have a female leader. These leaders have administrative responsibilities within their group. Study 2 examines whether formal female leadership impacts women’s influence and authority in groups.

The results are striking. In both experiments, women assigned to majority-male groups are less likely to be voted “most influential” and less likely to be selected as spokesperson, compared to women assigned to majority-female groups. Women thus experience lower perceived and actual influence and authority when they are outnumbered. And this is the case for the votes by both their female and male peers. Interestingly, women and men do equally speak up and contribute to the deliberation, but women fail to translate their engagement into influence in majority-male groups. (Coming on the heels of several recruitment seminars in our department, these results reminded us of Berk’s earlier blogs and follow-up research here and here about how men and women behave strikingly different in seminar audiences.)

But here’s the catch, in the second experiment, when there is a female leader assigned to the group, this effect is gone. Women and men are perceived to have similar levels of influence and are equally likely to be voted as spokesperson in majority-male and majority-female groups when there is a female leader.

Karpowitz et al. (2023) show that the gender composition of teams and female leadership can impact the ability that women have to shape group deliberations (at least in this very WEIRD population). A natural follow-up question is what is it about female leadership that is different? Here, a new study by Alan, Corekcioglu, Kaba, and Sutter (2024) provides some insights.

The authors study how female leadership shapes workplace climate - including social networks within the workplace - in 24 large corporations in Turkey. They collect rich survey and administrative data for 2,000 white-collar professionals - leaders and subordinates. A leader is anyone responsible for multiple employees, so departments may have multiple leaders and leaders may also have their own leaders. The empirical strategy compares female-led teams to male-led teams under the assumption that assignment to female leaders is as good as random after controlling for variables such as department characteristics, job type, etc… To further support this assumption, they only study the sub-sample of firms where workers are not allowed to choose their team leaders and team leaders are not allowed to choose their subordinates.

First, some descriptives: Men are 4.7% more likely to be leaders in this sample, but this gender gap disappears once demographics and department characteristics are accounted for. Male and female leaders are similar in some dimensions such as “fluid IQ” - a measure of abstract reasoning ability - but have a different skill set in other dimensions. Female leaders are significantly less competitive, more risk-averse, and report higher levels of empathy.

So does female and male leadership impact workers differently? Yes. Female leaders may create a different workplace culture than their male peers. Male workers report receiving equal levels of support from male and female leaders, but female workers report receiving significantly more support - professional and personal - from female leaders. Perhaps most strikingly: males working under female leadership are more likely to form links with their female colleagues than males working under male leadership. Workplace networks that form under female leadership, in other words, are less gender segregated than those formed under male leadership. This might partly explain why female leadership eliminates differences in outcomes for women and men between majority-male and majority-female groups in Karpowitz et al. (2023) study. Perhaps students in majority-male teams were more likely to form gender-segregated links within their groups which in turn influenced their perceptions of their peers’ abilities, but female leaders encouraged - either explicitly or implicitly - forming less gender segregated networks.

Together these papers show that policies to increase female representation can have very different impacts on men and women in an organization depending on gender composition of teams, flat vs hierarchical organization, leader identity, and the role of work networks. We need to think more deeply on how women and men are placed within an organization, and when they are, how they can be empowered to be effective, if we want to leverage female representation to close gender gaps in workplaces.

One last question. Can organizational structure trump stubbornly-held beliefs about women? Karpowitz et al. (2023) find that students’ behavior changed in response to group composition and female leadership, even though their beliefs about gender did not. So even where gender stereotypes may be deeply held by men and women, organization structure can still influence behaviors. And who knows – maybe it’s possible that beliefs would change over the longer run in response to strategic efforts to increase representation, not only within the firms, but also at the societal level, shaping household decisions and creating incentives to reduce gender inequities more broadly.


Kathleen Beegle

Research Manager and Lead Economist, Human Development, Development Economics

Emanuela Galasso

Senior Economist, The World Bank

Mahvish Shaukat

Economist, Development Economics

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