Janet Walkow Christine Jacobs

Women Claiming Authority

This week, LWP is featuring a story that highlights Hannah Riley Bowles research on how women claim authority. Bowles, a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) conducts research on gender in negotiation and the attainment of leadership positions. Bowles describes how the women whose narrative includes talking about how they have provided new strategic direction, built a community of supporters and are open to promoting themselves  have greater success in claiming authority.

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“Much more theoretical attention has been paid to the barriers to women’s advancement than to how women may overcome them,” writes Hannah Riley Bowles, senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

In a new paper, “Claiming Authority: How Women Explain Their Ascent to Top Business Leadership Positions,” Bowles reports on extensive interviews conducted with women who had reached the highest levels of business. From their stories of success (though that success is always hard-won) she derives a new theory on women and leadership — a theory that revolves around the use of what Bowles describes as “pioneering” and “navigating” narratives, and women’s ability to revise those narratives.

The current narrative about gender and leadership is dominated by images of the “glass ceiling” and, more recently, the “labyrinth,” Bowles writes. But she looks in a different direction: at women who managed to break through those obstacles. Starting from the understanding that the essence of authority — and hence of top leadership positions — is the recognition of “one’s exercise of power as legitimate,” Bowles sought out women who had established “the legitimacy to claim authority in the highest reaches of the business hierarchy.”

“By studying women who have already achieved top leadership positions,” Bowles writes, “we can infer that their stories are ones that have successfully sold others on the legitimacy of their authority claims.”

“Career stories provide insight into how institutionalized career scripts shape individuals’ aspirations, actions, and interactions, but they also provide a window into how individuals reinterpret and improvise from the standard plot,” she writes. “Career stories are also insightful because they are inherently social, constructed in anticipation of an audience and through direct conversations. As such, career stories have the potential to shape collective interpretations of the available career scripts. Stories of disloyalty to the standard plot carry the spores of institutional reproduction, because they germinate through their telling and retelling in the collective conception of the social order.”

For her research, Bowles interviewed 50 women in positions of senior leadership — such as CEO, president, and chief financial officer — both in major corporations and in entrepreneurial enterprises. As she analyzed the interviews, she began to notice two distinct ways of accounting for their claims to leadership, which she labeled “navigating” and “pioneering.”

“Navigating is a metaphor for accounts in which women explained their ascent to top leadership as a journey from position to position, following institutionalized career paths,” Bowles writes. “Pioneering is a metaphor for accounts in which women explain their ascent in terms of a novel strategic vision around which they developed collective support and followers.”

(The methods were not neatly divided between women working in corporate environments and those in entrepreneurial enterprises: Pioneering narratives were used by 16 out of 25 women in the latter, but also by a significant minority, 6 out of 25, in corporations.)

In navigating narratives, women worked toward a desired position by demonstrating their qualifications through “institutionalized rules of career advancement” and by advocating for themselves with the “gatekeepers of career advancement.”

“In pioneering accounts, the aspirant articulates a novel strategic direction in which she would like to lead her current or a new organization,” Bowles writes. “The legitimization of authority claims involves building a community of supporters and followers of her strategic vision and leadership.”

When women failed to claim their authority through these narratives, they would “work to revise or replace unsuccessful accounts.” Sometimes this would be a matter of simple revision, sometimes an opportunity to shift from navigating to pioneering, or vice versa.

The research suggests new avenues for exploration, Bowles argues. For example, self-advocacy was a dominant theme in many of the interviewees’ narratives. But that seems to contradict much of current thinking on gender and the workplace, which holds that self-promotion by women is seen as going against the accepted stereotype of female behavior and triggers a backlash.

Bowles also wonders whether the advocacy for strategic business ideas presented in pioneering narratives allows women greater success by freeing them from the constraints of self-promotion.

— by Robert O’Neill

Janet Walkow is the Executive Director and Chief Technology Officer of the Drug Dynamics Institute at The University of Texas and a co-founder of Leading Women. Read her full bio.

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