A graphic for the research summary on Taking Gender into Account

A Summary of the Workplace Biases Women Face


This 53-page working paper details the research and conclusions of Ely, Ibarra & Kolb, professors from Insead Business School. It begins like the Kings College London paper with a review of the current barriers and facilitators to women’s careers. The researchers then provide recommendations for designing and delivering Women’s Leadership Programmes (WLPs). It unpacks the shortfalls of programme design that reflect patriarchal systems and uses over a decade of insights to suggest how WLPs should be conducted to achieve success for women and their employers.  

Summary and Methodology 

This paper explores how Second Generation Bias (SGB) impacts the identity of women leaders. It reviews traditional leadership topics like leading change and negotiating, as well as more recent 360 feedback, networking and reframing these subjects in the context of women becoming senior leaders. It makes a case for women-only WLPs based on the researcher’s experience designing and delivering 50+ programmes over ten years. The approach is grounded in gender and leadership theory, which avoids victimising and blaming women and instead focuses on cultivating a sense of agency in women.  

Context: Women as Leaders 

Women are underrepresented in senior leadership positions across the globe and continue to face SGB.  Failed approaches to leadership programmes for women include those that avoid unpacking the implications of gender on leadership and condense women into existing leadership programmes that have already been delivered to men. The ‘fix the women’ approach (Ely & Meyerson, 2000) also fails despite using a gendered lens, as it assumes women not having ‘male skills’ is the problem. 

Developing leadership skills is intrinsically linked to constructing a leader identity, for example, confidently conveying a sense of purpose to others so that they view you as a leader and avoid the Double Bind. Women of Asian, Latin and African American heritage are all subject to racial stereotypes on top of gender, further distancing from leadership (Giscombe & Mattis, 2002) (Bell & Nkomo, 2001).  

Workplace biases pose challenges for women, including:  

  • A lack of senior role models for women, particularly for women of ethnic minorities.  
  • Gendered work: workspaces have been designed for men, and today men often have visible ‘heroic’ work that is rewarded, whereas – equally vital but frequently overlooked – ‘behind the scenes’ work tends to be women’s roles. 
  • Women’s lack of access to networks: There is a higher probability that men compared to women will be supported into a promotion by their mentor. 
  • Fewer women in senior roles result in heightened visibility for those who lead, which means those women leaders face greater scrutiny. 

Suggested solutions: 

  • 360 Feedback is comprehensive, beneficial for navigating the Double Bind, and may help women and their managers to see themselves as leaders. 
  • Build informal networks by getting a sponsor and participating in networking activities. 
  • Negotiate: understand and display own strengths, and practice asking what is needed. 
  • Challenge SGB and gendered work by reflecting on behaviours and specialising skillsets.

Principles of successful WLPs: 

  1. Tackle subtle stereotypes and use research on SGB to inform leadership topics to create a positive cycle of women propelling other women into leadership roles. 
  2. Build a safe peer support community to encourage identity work without judgement. 
  3. Anchor participants on their leadership purpose by exploring authenticity and focusing on what individuals want to accomplish. 


To find out more about the key concepts referenced in this summary, visit: 

Second Generational Bias (SGB)

Double Bind


To read more research summaries on women’s development in the workplace, visit:

Women’s Progression in the Workplace Summary

Click here to learn more about Women’s Development Programmes: 6 Lessons from Designing Women’s Development Programmes

Click here to learn more about Inclusive Leadership: Intro to Developing Inclusive Leaders