Women in leadership roles: A surprising result

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Female representation in senior economic and political positions is still very low in many European countries. But what happens to female empowerment when a woman ‘breaks the glass ceiling’? This column explores the extent to which female leaders appoint more women to other executive positions. Using data from Italian local politics, the research shows the opposite trend: women in senior roles are less likely to nominate women for official positions. This is a startling finding.

Women are still vastly underrepresented in leadership and decision-making roles, in both the economic and the political arena. In 2022, only 8% of CEOs and 22% of executives of the largest European listed companies were female, and women accounted for just one-third of the members of national parliaments in the EU (Gender Statistics Database, European Institute for Gender Equality). These low figures, while improving slowly over time, are concerning. This is because female representation is not just about fairness, but it is also linked to positive outcomes such as economic growth, lower corruption and higher investments in children. So, understanding how best to support female empowerment in business and in politics is a pressing policy-relevant research question.

A common idea is that when women ‘break the glass ceiling’ (that is, when they reach a leadership position) they are able to help fix the system for the inside. The logic is that they can exert ‘positive spillovers’ by further increasing female empowerment via three different channels: by offering a new role model for other women, who might be more likely to pursue a career in politics or in business when they see a female leader (known as the supply-side effect); by showing that women in power can bring value added, convincing parties or companies to select more women for key positions (known as the demand-side effect); and by directly appointing more women to executive roles (known as the direct effect).

In our study Do Female Leaders Choose Women? Evidence from Visible and Hidden Appointments, we test this last channel in a male-dominated setting where a limited number of women has managed to break the glass ceiling: Italian local politics. Less than 15% of the 8,000 Italian municipalities (the lowest administrative division of the country) are currently governed by a female mayor. But what happens to female empowerment when that is the case? Do female mayors appoint more women to executive positions than their male counterparts? The answer is quite the opposite. 


What do the data show?

In our study we consider all municipal elections held in Italy between 1993 and 2019. We look at cases in which the two candidates with the most votes are of the opposite sex (around 7,300 elections) and assess what happens when a woman wins the elections relative to what happens when she loses against her male opponent. To compare municipalities that are as similar as possible, we restrict our focus only to those elections in which the margin of victory in favour of one of the two candidates is extremely small. On average, municipalities where the female candidate gets 50.1% of the votes should be almost identical to those where she gets 49.9% of the votes, with the only difference being that in the first case a woman is elected as mayor while in the second a man is elected.

We are interested in two types of appointments made by the mayor. The first type involves appointments to the municipal executive committee – that is, the local government – whose members are directly chosen by the newly elected mayor. We refer to these appointments as ‘visible’ because they are typically made right after the elections and are subject to significant public attention and debate. The second type concerns appointments to the board of directors of local state-owned enterprises (SOEs). These are usually small companies meant to provide public goods and services (such as public transportation or waste collection). Since their timing does not coincide with local elections, and they are much less relevant for the public opinion, we refer to these appointments as ‘hidden’. 

Our main finding is that the share of female appointees to visible positions falls from around 27% when the mayor is a man, to 22% when she is a woman. In other words, electing a female instead of a male mayor reduces the share of women in the executive committee by more than five percentage points. On the other hand, there is no difference in appointments to hidden positions based on whether they are made by a man or a woman: the female share in SOE boards is around 15% in both cases.

How can we explain the fact that male leaders seem to appoint more women than their female counterparts when the appointments are visible, while this is not the case when the appointments are hidden? Our hypothesis is that male mayors appoint more women to visible positions because they feel more pressure from public opinion, while female leaders (being women themselves) are subject to a less stringent scrutiny on gender issues. Two elements support this idea:

  1. The effect on visible appointments only appears in the 2000s and increases in the following decade as gender issues become more salient in the Italian public debate.
  2. The effect only emerges in the most progressive areas of the country (the North and the Centre), where public opinion is more interested in gender equality. The shift does not happen in areas with a more traditional view on the role of women in society (the South).


What does this mean for policy-makers?

So, what should be done? These findings suggest that the advantages of gender quotas and other policies that support women in leadership roles may be partially offset by fewer women being appointed, at least for positions for which public pressure would have compelled men to choose more women. While the focus of this study is on the political arena, similar results might hold in other contexts where public opinion concerning gender equality is factored into the evaluation of male leaders’ choices. For instance, this can be the case in large private companies, where customers and employees may put under stronger scrutiny the appointments made by male rather than female CEOs. Future research should explore this possibility.

Authors: Edoardo Frattola, Andrea Cintolesi