In recent years, research has shown an increase in women’s leadership across different sectors (McKinsey, 2019). Despite this progress, women continue to confront more barriers and enjoy fewer opportunities for advancement than men, particularly in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector (Women Who Tech, 2020). Gender segregation persists across the ICT industry as a whole, and research reveals that, after having completed their education, many women leave the industry within a few years (EQUALs, 2019). Among leadership positions in the ICT industry, only 24% are held by women (IDC, 2019). And, according to data collected by the World Economic Forum (2019), less than a third of women pursuing higher education choose subjects such as math and engineering, resulting in an underrepresentation of women in STEAM-related fields.
The gender gap in leadership is affected by, among other things, issues of perception. Smith, et al., (2019) demonstrated a gendered difference in the terms used to describe leaders. Their study showed that, in descriptions of their leadership performance, women were assigned significantly more negative attributes than men. And yet, in contrast to such gendered differences in the way leadership is perceived and defined, research shows that men and women in leadership positions actually perform with equal success (ibid).
This research seeks to fill this gap with a pilot study of men’s and women’s perceptions of leadership, focusing specifically on the tech and mobile industries. The study aims to answer this overarching research question: “To what extent do men’s and women’s perceptions differ when assessing their own leadership qualities in the tech and mobile industries?” This question is based on an underlying assumption that perception is a barrier to women’s advancement in leadership roles, since self-perception can either limit or expand the range of attributes and behaviors of a leader.
The study’s results provide an opportunity to quantify the differences between men’s and women’s perceptions of leadership attributes and behaviors, and to generate key recommendations and plans for action to increase the opportunities for women to advance in leadership roles. It offers new perspectives on the ways in which women can advance in their careers and attain leadership positions.
In order to assess gender differences in the perception of leadership, the research used Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ Self), a commonly used instrument for evaluating leadership qualities developed by psychologists Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio (2000). The survey instrument aims to measure different leadership styles and behaviors and categorize them into transformational, transactional and non-active leadership models (Sudha et al, 2016). The MLQ Self was supplemented with a separate set of 8 items focused on assessing the perceived role that gender plays in leadership positions and the barriers that individuals may confront because of their gender.
Description of the sample
A total of 100 leaders in the mobile and technology industry responded to the survey, with an overwhelming majority of women represented in the sample – 80%, compared to 20% men – (the study aimed for 50-50 gender representation in the sample). Of these 100 leaders, 45% work in the tech industry, 30% in the mobile industry, and 25% report working for companies encompassing both the tech and mobile industries. Almost half of the sample is made up of leaders at an executive level, followed by middle-level managers (29%) and people working at a senior management level (26%). In terms of geographical representation, most of the leaders report that their company is based in Europe (49%), followed by the United states (27%), Africa (13%), and a small representation from Asia (8%). Only 3% of the sample represents companies in Latin America. (See graphs below)
Women perceive themselves as being more focused on developing others’ abilities and desires to succeed.
A larger proportion of women than men in the survey indicated that they “frequently, if not always” seek to: heighten “others’ desire to succeed” (39% women vs. 19% men); effectively “meet organizational requirements” (56% women vs. 31% men); and lead “a group that is effective” (25% women vs 12% men). This approach, focusing on building a team to achieve effectiveness and success in leadership, is in line with the transformational leadership model, which focuses on a leader’s ability to inspire and initiate great achievements by creating a strong company vision, encouraging group progress, and being a good role model.
Men identify themselves as passive-avoidant in their leadership styles to a greater extent than women.
Passive-avoidant is also known as laissez-faire leadership, a style that takes a hands-off approach to managing decisions. Such leaders will usually not set any expectations for their followers, as they believe that this slows down their problem-solving and decision-making processes (Bass and Avolio 1997, cited in Xu et al, 2016). The study shows that men, to a greater extent than women, identify as passive-avoidant and laissez-faire in their leadership styles. Men report more often than women that they “delay responding to urgent questions” (88% men vs. 42% women), “avoid making decisions” (81% men vs. 37% women), and “fail to interfere until problems become serious” (94% men vs. 66% women). Men tend to perceive themselves as leaders who try to implement a hands-off approach, refraining from any interference unless something upsets the status quo. Women, by contrast, tend to be more attuned to specific details and attend to day-to-day requirements, including conflict resolution and problem solving.
Women appear to identify more as transformational leaders than men.
Transformational leadership focuses on a leader’s ability to inspire and initiate success by creating a strong team vision and acting as a good role model. A transformational leader is one who exhibits high ethical and moral standards and emphasizes inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration. A greater proportion of women than men report that they almost always “specify the importance of having a strong sense of purpose” (58% women vs. 12% men) and “talk optimistically about the future” (47% women vs 0% men). And women more frequently report that they “emphasize the importance of having a collective sense of mission” (48% women vs 12% men).
No significant difference was found between the way that men and women perceive themselves in terms of equity and wellness.
The final finding yielded an inconclusive result in the study of men’s and women’s perceptions of fairness with regard to their own opportunities, rewards, value to the company, and possibilities for advancement. At the outset of the study, we anticipated that women would perceive that they face greater barriers to fairness and opportunity. The study did not, however, find a difference between men and women in this category. It is possible that the results were skewed by the study’s focus on women who have already attained leadership positions, so that they tend not to experience — or feel that they are experiencing — the problem of greater barriers or unfairly limited opportunities for advancement.
Based on the study’s findings, four key sets of recommendations were issued to provide best practices for promoting and retaining women in leadership positions in the mobile and tech industries:
- Acknowledge a range of transformational leadership styles;
- Provide incentives for individuals to develop effective leadership skills;
- Develop mentorship and training programs; and
- Increase research into and spread awareness of the factors affecting leadership equity and fairness.
The study concludes with a strong call for action to provide guidance to a range of stakeholder groups, including government, policy makers, the private sector, the international community, and the nonprofit sector.
The study was undertaken by GSMA in collaboration with Oslo Metropolitan University, the Women inTech Initiative at UC Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School, and the Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington within the framework of the EQUALS global partnership for digital gender equality.