Don't you know that it is different for girls? Trust creation and erosion in organizations

Article from Rosalind Searle, Coventry University - Head of Trust Research and Prof. of Organisational Behaviour and Psychology, Centre for Trust, Pace and Social Relations.

Rosalind Searle.jpg

"Don't you know that it is different for girls" states Joe Jackson's song underlining the different experiences of men and women. We find the same in our research. While women outperform men in educational achievements, they appear unable to make the same strides in leadership positions. Although many organizations take care to balance initial entry-level numbers, it is in progression to the top that the ratios start to change. 

Evidence shows women can make important contributions to the top team [1]; Female directors can have an important positive impact on the performance of organizations [e.g. 2, 3]; they are more diligent in their attention toward the conformance and governance tasks of the executive, more benevolent and inclusive of others than their male counterparts, but also ask more challenging questions in executive meetings [4, 5]. So where is this female talent? 

The issue appears to be two-fold. First, women are less inclined to identify themselves as ready for top positions, preferring to have a great deal of experience, unlike their male counterparts. Second, experience shows this caution might be very wise as recruitment processes appear to pay greater attention to women's level and types of experiences, while for male applicants the focus is on their potential and not actual achievements. 

The ongoing scandals and crisis facing organizations in a number of sectors reveal that those at the top of organizations appear either to be negligent, or inattentive to what their employees are doing, or indicate a clear complicity in creating and promulgating the behaviours which led to such failures. Therefore, the issues of governance highlighted earlier are critically required. 

Our research looking at organizations indicates that the competence and integrity of leaders critically matters [6]. Indeed, we have found, from a large scale survey, that leaders are THE organization, setting the tone and modelling behaviours for others [7]. Yet, women remain significantly under-represented in most boards - why? 

One of the under examined and underlying issues is the experiences of women en-route to the top. In a recent event we ran at Coventry, female leaders identified experiences of marginalization and bullying. They revealed some important clues and signals that gather as women rise up through organizations to the top, which might fail to energize and inspire them to become leaders. Instead, women's experiences are often of unnecessary competition and prejudice, which by the time they have acquired sufficient experience to enter the C-suite, leave them feeling why would they want to experience more.  

Indeed, evidence shows the gender expectations of top roles creates an incongruity for women due to their negative treatment [8]. For example, they are often appointed to more precarious senior leadership positions, where failure is often inevitable, than their male counterparts [9, 10]. Similarly in political arenas, female candidates are often only selected to compete for unwinnable seats [11]. Thus, the odds are stacked against their succeeding.  

Further, women are unfairly compared to their male counterparts [12] - think of all of the comments about female leaders' appearances compared to their male counterparts. They continue to receive less financial remuneration [13]. But also, in becoming a leader, they become a minority in a group whose behavior is often politely described as 'overassertive', which not only undermines the Board's effectiveness, but signals norms for other staff to follow [14-17]. 

These negative experiences occur within the context of work relationships, and evidence shows women tend to incorporate more attention towards relational matters in their sense of themselves [18]. Therefore, repeated disconfirmations of their leadership styles have a more marked impact on women than on men. It is not surprising that new research shows that while women are initially more trusting in new work situations, when their trust is damaged it does not regain its previous levels [19]. 

Our recent work has shown how a switch between low trust and distrusting employees is crucial; it is this transition into distrust that is most damaging to organizations. Our latest research consortium is going to be looking at the experiences that eroded trust; but it is not just about women. This is important given our previous research shows how experiences of fairness give critical clues and signals about an organization's trust. 

If you are not the majority - we want to know, do you see, but also experience the world differently? To paraphrase the song "it is different for girls", but also for all who are not part of the dominant gender and ethnicity. We want to identify what is it precisely that causes the 'drip drip' erosion of trust that is impoverishing talent pools, reducing market knowledge and intelligence, and lowering the creativity and innovation potential of firms. 

If you are interested in finding out more about our research consortiums - which undertake applied research in organizations to produce results that focus on real world challenges, enhancing understanding and insight about what can be done, please contact me - Prof. Rosalind Searle ( 

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