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Helping women achieve leadership and excel

USask researchers use mindfulness training to help
Megan Walsh and Erica Carleton

University of Saskatchewan (USask) researchers are using mindfulness training to help women overcome stereotype threat, a major barrier that hinders them from joining and performing well in top leadership positions in organizations.

“Despite women’s increasing levels of education and participation in the workforce, they continue to hold only a dismal five per cent of the powerful leadership positions in North America,” said Megan Walsh, principal investigator of a USask study of mindfulness training.

Stereotype threat—the risk of individuals becoming concerned about behaving in a way that confirms negative stereotypes about their group—is a factor that can affect women’s ambition in aspiring to become leaders and their performance in that role, said Walsh.

“We have stereotypes about women as warm and communal, and about leaders being very dominant and authoritative, and those two stereotypes don’t match. So, when women are reminded of this perceived mismatch, their leadership aspirations can suffer, and their performance in leadership positions can suffer as well,” she said.

Walsh and Erica Carleton, assistant professors in the Edwards School of Business at USask, are studying how and why mindfulness—an intense awareness and focus on what one is sensing and feeling in the moment without judgment or interpretation—can support women’s aspiration to be leaders and help their performance. Kara Arnold, a professor in organizational behaviour at Memorial University in Newfoundland, is collaborating on the project.

“We want to provide organizations with evidence about the effectiveness of mindfulness in addressing the gender representation issues within leadership, and also get women thinking of mindfulness as a tool they can use on their own to achieve their goals and remain resilient against stereotypes,” Walsh said.

Their two-year research project, Addressing Stereotype Threat for Women in Leadership: The Role of Mindfulness, has been awarded $64,000 by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The project will train one PhD student, Amanda Hancock, at Memorial University.

Although mindfulness meditation has been adopted by large companies such as General Mills, Google and Nike to improve employee well-being and productivity, Walsh said her team’s project is the first to apply the benefits of mindfulness to stereotype threat within leadership in particular.

The project involves three studies. The first was conducted with 267 men and women who were randomly assigned to one of two groups—one group reminded of stereotype threat and the other not informed.

The team will present results from the first study at the Academy of Management conference in Boston in August, showing that mindful awareness helped women to retain confidence to succeed in specific situations (self-efficacy) and leadership aspirations despite experiencing stereotype threat through social media.

The second and third parts are field studies involving women and men currently in mid- to upper-level leadership positions in several sectors. These studies will assess the impact of stereotype threat on leadership performance and the role of mindfulness in mitigating the threat.

“With competition high in North America to attract and retain outstanding leaders, it is crucial to include one of the most under-used resources available—women,” said Walsh.