Research suggests that just being aware of sexism can motivate women to overcome the barriers facing them in some organizations, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Newman sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to talk about a recent study published in the Journal of Personnel Psychology which suggests there may be psychological antidotes to the barriers that exist for women in some workplaces.

Rick Cluff: What is going on psychologically speaking, when women strive for leadership roles?

Jennifer Newman: It's all about motivation and the things that contribute to women being motivated to become leaders. A main motivator is feeling positively about the idea of being in a leadership position. Thinking you might enjoy, like or feel comfortable leading, has a lot to do with whether women go for leadership positions. The researchers found women who feel positively about taking leadership roles, tend to strive to become managers. The key is to increase the things that drive women to take leadership roles.

Jennifer Newman

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

So, what drives women to want to become leaders at work?

There are a few factors. A big one is seeing other women in leadership roles. It's motivating to see someone similar to yourself in a particular role, especially leadership. Also, having contemporary attitudes about women's roles in society, helps too. Basically, if your identity as a woman includes a wide spectrum of role choices, you are more likely to feel positively about taking leadership positions. And, interestingly, being aware of sexism and its role in holding women back, motivates women to lead.

Why does seeing women in leadership positions factor so much in a woman's choice to pursue a managerial role?

It gives women a sense this is not only a viable career choice, but a real possibility. Women are inspired when they see other women in supervisory positions. It strengthens their confidence about achieving at a leadership level. And it fosters academic aspirations to go after a degree that can net a managerial position.

I worked with someone who decided to do her MBA after seeing other women in her company holding director positions and she set that influenced her decision to go for it.

You mentioned holding contemporary attitudes about women's roles contribute to women taking on leadership positions?

Yes, that's because old school beliefs about women's roles place women in supportive roles to men or prescribe one role, like motherhood, as the only correct or meaningful career choice.

woman manager

Jennifer Newman says research found that women who are aware of sexist barriers become even more determined to reach their goals. (Getty Images/Hero Images)

The researchers found women who believe they should focus mainly on supporting their partners in their roles tend to feel negatively about taking leadership positions. Leadership seems like a stereotypically masculine pursuit, whereas believing women's roles are many and varied is important. This way of thinking leads to feeling positive about becoming a manager.

For example a mother of three was finishing a graduate degree part-time and moving up at work and she had her sights set on a managerial position. But some relatives were telling her she should reconsider the manager role. They worried it would take up too much family time. However, neither she nor her partner believed her mother role precluded her from being a manager. So it motivated her to pursue her work and family goals at the same time. So it's easier for women with non-traditional beliefs about their roles to see striving for leadership jobs as a positive thing to do.

Being aware of sexism in society seems connected to women taking on manager roles. Why is that?

I know it seems counterintuitive. But realizing you face disadvantages and discrimination can have a positive effect. I wouldn't recommend sexism as a motivator however. But it validates why it's sometimes difficult to get leadership roles when you apply for them. Rather than feel defeated, women who are aware of sexist barriers become even more tenacious. It makes the path to leadership clearer, it helps identify the obstacles, and it helps women continue to search for ways to overcome issues on the way to the top.

How can organizations assist women in taking on leadership roles?

The big one, based on this research, is increase the number of women leaders.

I know an organization that did try this. Tthey sought applications for leadership positions from women employees. But they also asked their female employees to recommend their friends for these positions, and as a result they had a pool of potential candidates that was quite large and included a large number of women to choose from.

It's also important to have women leaders mentor female peers, and make workers aware of what sexism is and ask them to report it. It's defined as stereotyping attitudes, or behaviour along gender lines. Or devaluing or discriminating against someone based on gender, especially as it's directed towards women. It's ingrained or institutional prejudice, or even hatred towards women. Identify how women may have trouble getting ahead at your organization.

There was an organization focused on promoting women as a goal, so decided not just to think about their hiring practices, but their culture. And they found incidents of sexual harassment that were actually blocking talented women from moving forward and progressing in their careers.

Organizations can take pains not to penalize staff for integrating home, work and family: offer paternity and maternity leave, ensure both genders have flexibility around child care, like taking kids to the doctor, leaving early to see a child's school concert, or being able to drop off or pick kids up from school or daycare. This normalizes the fact everyone has a role and a stake in caring for children, running households and earning income.

This interview was condensed and edited.


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman looks at the barriers to women taking on more leadership roles at work.