Women are equally represented in the workforce, obtain the majority of bachelor and graduate degrees in the U.S., and possess more than half of management and professional positions in organizations.


Yet women are currently underrepresented in upper-level management and rarely hold positions at the C-suite level.

These disturbing facts beg the question, Why do men advance more rapidly in organizations than do women?

Recent research conducted at CCL, the University of Florida, and the University of Minnesota has found a partial answer to this question. Namely, women are held to different standards with regard to their relationships at work.

When women and men have equally strained interpersonal relationships, women managers are estimated to have a 3.5% to 17% greater probability that their bosses will classify them as being at risk for career derailment, as compared to their male counterparts.

(Being at risk for career derailment means that one is perceived to have a high likelihood of being fired, receiving a demotion, or plateauing or stalling in one’s career.)

All women considered “at risk for career derailment” are not absolutely doomed for career failure, but overcoming such negative perceptions or classifications can be extremely difficult for women who are trying to keep or get their management careers back on track.

Part of this difficulty lies in the fact that managers who are perceived to be at risk of career derailment receive significantly less mentoring and career support from their supervisors than do managers who are in good standing in their organizations.

This means that women who are perceived to have strained interpersonal relationships at work, and who are trying to revive their management careers are likely to be adversely affected, and hindered in at least 6 ways:

  • They may not receive sufficient developmental coaching from their supervisors.
  • They may not be protected or shielded from harm by their supervisors.
  • Their supervisors are less likely to sponsor them on projects or to help them advance in their organizations.
  • Their supervisors may not help them gain needed visibility within their organization.
  • Their supervisors may not challenge them to acquire new skills/experiences.
  • Their supervisors may not offer them a sufficient level of general support and encouragement.

What lessons can we take from this research?

First, as unfair as it may be, women are held to higher standards in terms of how they get along with others. Thus, women who want to climb the corporate ladder must pay careful attention to maintaining healthy relationships at work. This should help them steer clear of career difficulty or career derailment.

Second, in cases in which a woman is considered to be at risk for derailment, she may also have a greater burden than men to seek feedback, mentoring, and developmental assignments in ways that do not exclusively depend on her immediate supervisor. Likewise, it seems really important for women to actively build informal networks, both inside and outside of their organizations, that they can access for career advice and mentoring.

Finally, while our study identified one reason that men may advance more rapidly than women in organizations, our findings cannot be considered the main reason for existing gender disparities in upper-management positions.

Clearly, there are additional structural inequities, as well as other factors, that are having an adverse impact on the career advancement of women in organizations. CCL has ongoing research that is attempting to uncover such career barriers. (For more on this research please see the related articles below.)

The content of this post is based on the following publication: Bono, J. E., Braddy, P. W., Liu, Y., Gilbert, E. K., Fleenor, J. W., Quast, L. N., & Center, B. A. (In Press). Dropped on the Way to the Top: Gender, Managerial Derailment, and Withdrawal of Mentoring. Personnel Psychology.

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