Can a company’s organizational structure actually be more friendly to women?

By Lauren Thatcher

Companies can be gendered? Wait, what?

Let’s begin with talking about a company’s power—it starts with the organizational structure. If decisions are made only by upper management, the company is hierarchical. If the decisions are divided up among all levels of workers, the company is egalitarian.

Researcher Lynn Gencianeo Chin investigated how a company’s organizational structure, centralized (hierarchical) or decentralized (egalitarian), affects leadership evaluations of men and women regardless of their individual leadership styles.

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She did this by having 200 college students read and evaluate profiles of companies asking for Federal loans. All companies were from the healthcare field for many reasons, including it can be seen as a gender-neutral industry. She identified each profile as either a centralized or decentralized company, that was lead by a man or a woman.

After being given brief descriptions of the qualifications of the company’s CEO, CEO gender, organizational structure, and organizational outcomes the students were asked to evaluate the profile. For each profile students evaluated the CEO’s leadership skills, as well as rewarded or punished the CEO for the company’s outcome, success or failure.  

For a woman in a hierarchical company, despite her leadership style not being described, she received “dominance backlash.” It didn’t matter if a woman’s hierarchical company succeeded, because women didn’t receive recognition. However, when men’s companies succeeded, the evaluations of their leadership skills increased.

So basically, women can’t win in hierarchical companies. We get lower ratings than men when we fail and we get lower ratings than men when we succeed. Even a woman’s actual competence was questioned more than a man’s competence when their company failed.

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After handling that nice punch in the stomach, let’s look at women in egalitarian companies. This organizational structure offers an equality atmosphere that allows women not be devalued next to their male competition when they succeed, thankfully. However, that does not apply if their company fails. Women receive a much comparatively larger drop in evaluations in competence and leadership skills when this occurs.

It’s like this is never ending. There was almost a light at the end of the tunnel with the egalitarian companies…almost. So what does this mean for women in the workplace? What can organizations do to limit this?

Organizations need to create a consistent criteria for evaluating different levels of success. And further, we need to hire more women to make promotional and company culture decisions.

So though the past and present are dim with a negative bias towards women in leadership, hopefully the future can be bright with women supporting other women and organizations strict criteria diminishing opportunity for penalizing women’s leadership.

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