Managing women to the top


It has long been clear that there are significant differences between men and women when it comes to how they make career decisions. But are you also aware of the differences that exist between women? Don’t fall for the stereotype that every woman wants to work less at some point because of her home situation. Furthermore, the way you can bind top women to your organization is probably different than you think. For that reason we will eleborate on this in our blog managing women to the top.

Managing women to the top: Research on top women

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), in cooperation with the Top Women Netherlands Foundation and Career Openers, conducted research on business women at the top of the Dutch labor market. The focus was on women in management roles with above-average achievements and steep career paths.

The research focused in particular on the career decisions top women make and how this group differs from other women. Numerous insights emerged from the interviews and questionnaires with various women, the most important three of which you will find in this article.

One of the biggest challenges as a manager is probably retaining or attracting talented people to your team, project or department. Of course, you try to adapt your approach to the individual employee. After all, everyone is different. What issues should you take into account in particular with talented female professionals? Secondly how do you recognize them? Thirdly how can you get to know them better and engage them more effectively? And finally, how do you best help them get to the top? In this article you will find three things that top women (to be) appear to find important, according to recent research by Rotterdam School of Management.

1. Career decisions based on opportunities for self-development

Firstly when top women make career decisions, self-development is a dominant theme. For example, top women’s motivation for a particular job is determined less by money, job title, or status. But primarily by the possibility of continuing to develop themselves. Consequently top women thus have an urge to constantly learn new things and want to be challenged at work. This challenge can arise, for example, from the range of tasks, inspiring colleagues or from you as a manager. Basically top women thus choose jobs and projects that are primarily good for their self-development. These self-development motives help them to be less easily demotivated in the face of adversity. As a matter of fact the majority of women who do go more for salaries and status, therefore, turn out to earn the most.

Furthermore an interesting positive correlation was found. As a matter of fact women who are most focused on self-development also appear to be the women who are significantly happier with their jobs compared to women who are more focused on salary and status.

2. A career woman is not (and will not become) a top woman

The stereotype of the career woman is a woman who allows herself to be little influenced by her private life in career decisions and therefore becomes so successful. This image does not seem to be true. What the research shows is contrary to what one might expect. Women who let their career choices be influenced the least by their personal lives are not necessarily the women who are also the most successful.

Secondly in fact, it appears that the extent to which these women are concerned with balancing their personal and professional lives does not affect their career success at all. Also this may indicate a second characteristic of a top woman. A woman who – regardless of the challenge of balancing work and private life – can continue to perform above average at work. Incidentally, it has been found that top women, as they get older, worry less and less about balancing their private life and work; the pursuit of perfection is abandoned.

3. Changing focus on leadership

Thirdly it is clear from the research that there is a changing focus throughout the career of top women. Evidently, at the beginning of the career, they are relatively focused on themselves and their own visibility and performance. Evidently their motivation is mainly based on presenting a story as strongly as possible. This changes as the top woman has more work experience.

Meanwhile at a later stage in a top woman’s career, this focus shifts to the performance of the team and the emphasis is considerably less on individual performance. Important issues the top woman then faces are: “how do I get my team to be as efficient as possible?”. And “how do I make sure everyone is doing the best they can”? Thirdly, in short, as top women advance in their careers, their leadership style becomes more coaching. They become more attentive to the development of individual teammates by supporting and encouraging them to achieve more.


As shown above the coaching leadership style that top women develop may be related to the top woman’s own need to continue to develop and work with inspiring people. However, whether adopting this leadership style has a positive impact on career success was not revealed by the study.


Certainly the differences in career decisions of top women and the stereotypical image that exists are mainly seen in the need for self-development and challenge by her work environment. What does not appear to be true, but is often thought to be so, is that a top woman’s home situation has a dominant influence on how she manages her career. This research shows that as a manager you should pay much more attention to the possibility of development within your organization to bind top women to you. The idea that the home situation has a negative influence on the career success of these women can be abandoned.

Attracting top female talent to your organization

Obviously the three insights from RSM’s research may have implications for your organization’s recruitment and selection policy. But also for the opportunities your organization offers for management development and the remuneration of women in management positions. There are three things to be sure to take into account:

1. Self-development is key

By all means as a manager, you want to attract top female talent to your organization. Firstly the challenge is to stimulate opportunities for self-development and to communicate this in understandable language to the labor market. It is also relevant to look at career development in a less traditional way. Even when selecting new female managers, it is good to keep this in mind. A higher need for self-development seems to be positively related to the degree of successfully fulfilling the position.

Although the RSM study found that more successful women put self-development at the center of their decision-making, and these results show a fairly consistent picture, obviously more research is needed to make even firmer claims.

2. Attention to inspiration

Secondly, as a manager, you can more effectively bind top female talent to your organization by paying more attention to development opportunities within your organization. This can be done by means of talent development programs and by stimulating cooperation with inspiring colleagues.

As a result the role of leadership is vital here: evidently top women find it more important than average to be inspired by their immediate surroundings. Secondly mentoring and coaching are good ways to do this, but of course it can also be done through more formal management development programs.

3. Managing women to the top: It’s not about money

Thirdly in the area of remuneration policy, these insights could provide a better explanation for the fact that women’s salaries deviate in a negative sense from those of men. Whereas men are more likely to choose money, the top woman is more likely to choose a challenging job.

Therefore, if women are not primarily focused on money (which again, this research shows), all things considered the solution to binding the real top female performers to your organization does not lie in increasing pay.

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