The United Nations (UN) recognize that sustainable development is only possible if women and girls have equal access to quality education, economic resources, and political participation, as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership, and decision making at all levels [1
]. In fact, the 5th UN Sustainable Development Goal on gender equality, specifically goal 5.5, looks to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life”. Indeed, gender equality and the effective participation of women are both important for effective action on all aspects of sustainable development [2
]. Thus, the persistence of a gender gap in corporate leadership positions is a major socio-economic challenge, and the underutilization of the talent and skills of highly qualified women a hurdle to development. Thus, initiatives that close this gap are tools to achieve sustainable development.
The scarcity of women in decision-making bodies has negative effects on society. From an economic point of view, not taking into account half the pool of talent when selecting candidates for decision-making bodies cannot provide an optimal selection. This inefficient allocation of resources would imply losses in productivity and innovation [3
]. However, women are still not obtaining top corporate positions [5
]. In fact, the presence of women tends to decline as the level of management increases, which showcases the existence of limits beyond formal qualifications in real-life systems. These invisible barriers preventing women from reaching leadership positions have been grouped under the concept of the “glass ceiling” [6
]. While previous research has amply identified the external challenges that women face to break the glass ceiling, much less scholarship has explored the conditions under which women can overcome the internal barriers that can facilitate women’s leadership. Therefore, limitations can be identified either from the supply (i.e., women’s internal barriers) or the demand side (i.e., companies) [7
]. The measures to reduce these limitations are also classified in terms of the demand and supply sides; thus, any policy or action that incentivizes companies to incorporate women within these corporate positions are grouped as demand-side solutions. The supply-side measures, on the contrary, aim to help women to reach such positions. In any case, both supply and demand are very much interrelated and when women are not present in the highest positions in business, their limited influence on decisions perpetuates inequality in the workplace.
Thus, in this new scenario of searching for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), companies can eventually become participants that are fully engaged in the movement [8
] through the implementation of demand-side solutions. One straightforward way through which they can contribute to the achievement of gender equality in top corporate leadership positions is truly becoming agents of change (champions) in this field. In particular, companies, together with institutions of higher education, can play an important role in designing and implementing training programs for their women executives so that they can develop the skills, attitudes, and behaviours needed to overcome both personal and corporate barriers and break the glass ceiling.
Authentic Leadership Development (hereafter ALD) is configured as a collection of several components, such as positive psychological capital (e.g., confidence, optimism, hope, and resiliency), positive moral perspective (i.e., inherent ethical/moral component), self-awareness, self-regulation, and relational transparency [9
]. Thus, in the search for more suitable training programs to help women executives break their barriers, this positive style of leadership seems especially suitable for them for at least two reasons. First, given that self-awareness and solid moral foundations are central to authentic leadership [9
], teaching approaches that promote “reflexive ability”, such as ALD programs, can enable the effective learning of responsible leadership. This way, businesses could redefine their relations with society to play a significant role in preventing human, financial, or ecological crises, allowing these leaders becoming agents of change in this regard. Society needs leaders integrating virtues values, character strengths, and ethical decision making to strengthen an organization’s ethical decision making [8
]. Second, ALD programs can elicit women participants’ authentic leadership. Authentic leadership is conceptualized as a communal leadership style positively associated with women; in fact, in their study, Braun et al. [10
] found that perceivers have female leaders in mind when prompted to think of authentic leadership. For women, this leadership is more congruent with their gender group. This way, through these programs, companies look both to train future managers in ethics and sustainability issues and provide their women executives with more suitable skills and the capability to be promoted.
In this paper, we examine the Promociona Project as an ALD training program specially designed for women leaders. We consider this to be an ALD program as, according to their own statement, its goal is to promote women to senior management positions but remain aware of their own moral values, perspectives, knowledge, strengths, and the environment they work in, which is closely aligned with the definition of Authentic Leadership. Additionally, the Promociona Project is not a mere collection of classroom-based theory lectures that have proven to have limited effectiveness in developing the personal abilities, attitudes, and behaviour that are required for leadership [11
]. The project encompasses executive education with several self-reflection and self-knowledge exercises, as well as feedback evaluation from peers, coaching sessions, a mentoring program, and several networking activities with business leaders and managers. This diversified activity program involving training, one-on-one coaching, and the reframing of critical life events (trigger events) is considered to be the most promising pathway to develop authentic leadership [12
Therefore, our aim is to evaluate the effectiveness of the techniques, tools, and processes provided by an ALD program specially designed for women to activate their leadership skills [13
] and thus eliminate or at least reduce the internal barriers that prevent women from being promoted to high status positions in their organizations. By drawing on authentic leadership theory [13
], women, through this training program, can position themselves as relevant candidates for promotions. We approach this research goal through a mix-method methodology, allowing us to clarify and complement the exploratory analysis carried out with the qualitative method. Our results show how this ALD program acts as a catalyst for authentic leadership [9
]. The tools provided by the program activate the different elements of relational authenticity [13
] and allow women to move forward in their corporate careers. In particular, we find that the investigated ALD program improves women participants’ self-concept, although not through a leader eudaemonic well-being mechanism as predicted by the literature [14
], but through a life-story approach that develops high levels of self-resolution to abandon a low status role, as well as raising the women’s self-efficacy perception and self-development. The program also has a vitally positive impact in the relational and social capital of participants that sparks after the program, as a way to leverage the newly acquired or activated skills. Indeed, the program offers them leadership styles that are more congenial with their gender group, inspiring identification and trust from followers and peers, and gaining relational authenticity. This confers the confidence and legitimacy required to build up networks and relationships with others relevant to promotions [15
]. Finally, we also observe that participants learn to take control of their careers, developing guided reflective thinking that leads to a person-role merger process (i.e., the life-story approach) [16
], gaining legitimacy to take control of their own progression and abandoning their tendency to react rather than to act.
In summary, this research makes several contributions to the literature. First, this is one of the few studies [8
] that tries to understand how authentic leadership can be developed and taught in a training program in the business field. This understanding is critical to advancing theory and research on authentic leadership, a relatively new field. Second, we evaluate the effectiveness of a current and real ALD training program specially designed for women leaders to address internal obstacles that potentially hinder their ascent up organizational ladders, thus providing an answer to scholars’ calls for “novel solutions to the persisting challenges for women in leadership” [18
]. A better comprehension of these programs would help researchers, practitioners, companies, and governments to better assess and design training programs for women candidates to further advance gender diversity in leadership positions. Finally, we provide empirical evidence to address previously unexamined issues about how women, traditionally considered to be outsiders within leadership elites, can overcome prior obstacles and be perceived as authentic leaders by their peers and followers [13
]. In particular, we address how ALD programs can provide women with more congruent managerial styles with their gender group that are acceptable in the leadership field, thus facilitating a genuine leadership style.
2. Theoretical Background
Recently, and from the positive psychology area, there has been growing interest in authentic leadership [19
] and authenticity training [17
]. After the 2008–2009 recession, many companies aimed to help their leaders to discover their “true” self in an attempt to be trusted and promote public confidence [20
]. Authentic leaders are especially needed to solve societal challenges by fostering “positive environments and conduct business in an ethical, socially responsible manner” [12
]. Indeed, authentic leadership is considered essential in achieving sustainable business performance [17
Shamir and Eilam [16
] define authentic leaders based on the leader’s self-concept. This way, authentic leaders are persons that have achieved a high level of merger between themselves and the leader role (person-role merger); high levels of self-resolution that center around strongly held values and convictions (self-concept clarity), which goals are self-concordant with their values (self-concordance) and whose behaviour is consistent with their self-concept (self-expressive behaviour).
The term authentic leadership includes not only authentic leaders but authentic followership as well; authentic leadership reflects an interactive and authentic relationship that develops between the leader and followers [16
]. This way, Walumbwa et al. [21
] define authentic leadership as “a pattern of leader behaviour that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster greater self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on the part of leaders working with followers, fostering positive self-development”.
Regarding ALD, this term is used to name the developmental process model for authentic leadership by which the leader learns to serve followers with their authentic values, beliefs, and behaviours [19
]. This process is based on the development of confidence and self-efficacy, agency in career development, optimism, and resiliency [19
]. According to this model, the processes to create authentic leadership requires the development of the individual and the context in which they are embedded over time. Nevertheless, the authors in [19
] advocate not waiting for a trigger event to provide authentic leaders but to accelerate their development through designing field interventions, including elements that differ from seminars, such as transformative experiences, e.g., mentoring, or offering alternative role models [22
In order to create authentic leaders, training interventions should be a genuine program, including “trigger events” that could change careers, challenging previous skills in the search for unconventional solutions and, indeed, offering a strong ethical stand and tailoring to a specific targeted audience [12
]. The Promociona Project is an ALD program, an experiential training process enhancing authentic leadership skills among women participants [17
]. By focusing on their career and promotion, this ALD program gives women participants the abilities and skills needed to advance in their careers, enhancing the paradoxical aspects of authenticity [20
]. In order to ensure leadership development, the training is based within a learning community focused on the development of each member, and the learning experienced is focused on participants [23
]. The program is designed so as to offer participants the possibility to holistically overcome their internal barriers for future promotions, tackling at the same time three different authentic leadership traits that eventually could aid their promotion: self-efficacy perception, social capital, and career planning.
Training programs for women leaders have the possibility to activate authentic leadership traits: “To the extent that leader roles gain less traditional definitions and valued management styles are more fluid, women have more opportunities to develop relational authenticity” [19
]. These new traits, in the form of recently acquired leadership skills, can form the foundation of their authentic leadership and women participants’ key to promotions. The changes towards authentic leadership aim to promote “authenticity as both owning one’s personal experiences (thoughts, emotions, or beliefs, “the real me inside”) and acting in accordance with the true self (behaving and expressing what you really think and believe) [9
]. We draw on this theory to identify how women, through this training program, can improve three elements that allow them to enhance relational authenticity and therefore authentic leadership, increasing their chances of promotions.
The first element is reducing women’s self-limiting behaviours derived from a low self-efficacy perception. Self-efficacy is concerned with judgments about how well one can organize and execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations containing many ambiguous, unpredictable, and often stressful elements. Lower self-efficacy perception in women in the management field is associated with women’s higher self-imposed standards to apply for top managerial positions and can come from the fact that women generally judge themselves as being less suitable than men for many non-traditional occupations.
The low(-er) self-efficacy perception also has to contend with women’s own negative self-views (low self-esteem and low self-confidence) [24
]. This female cognitive bias has a strong relation with impostor syndrome, the psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments, which make these women have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud” [26
]. This self-limiting feeling [27
] is very much in line with the role incongruity these women feel [28
] by not showing masculine traits in their corporate behaviour. The ALD training program allows women to embrace their different behaviours, experiences, and values, giving them the chance to project themselves with confidence and emotional control and show themselves to be authentic leaders.
This way, the program elicits the development of authentic leadership among the participants, which has positive and direct effects on their low-self-efficacy perception. Indeed, through the positivism linked to the eudaemonic well-being mechanism [14
], participants reinforce and improve their self-concept perceptions, becoming proud of themselves for their fulfilled goals. This is so because one important component of authentic leadership is self-awareness, which should include self-acceptance. In fact, there is a positive link between self-awareness and positive self-concept [29
]. Individuals with a positive self-concept have high self-esteem and believe themselves generally capable of accomplishing things; that is, they have high generalized self-efficacy [30
]. This way, leaders with more positive self-concepts are likely to exhibit higher self-awareness, which has positive implications for leadership effectiveness and for the leaders’ own psychological well-being.
In this regard, activities that seek to develop a skill, learn, or gain insight into something, such as, in this case, authentic leadership, are assessed as specific eudaemonic activities [29
]. Indeed, the project is oriented towards the excellence and growth of professional women and aims to develop their potential as authentic leaders; it thus elicits in them the eudemonic well-being that raises their self-realization [29
] and, based on the assumption that self-esteem arises as the product of acting in congruence with one’s values [31
], also their self-esteem. These higher levels of self-esteem that arise through this self-actualization process would improve participants’ self-efficacy perception, which would eventually help to overcome this internal barrier and empower participants.
The second element is the enhancement of relational and social capital. Women’s traditional reduced access to networks has been identified as one important problem in accessing leadership positions [12
]. Following social identity theory [34
], people are categorized as out-group or in-group members based on their salient demographic characteristics, gender being one of them. Those in-group members would be favoured by the majority group’s decisions. Therefore, men, considered the majority group in corporate leadership positions and selection processes, would give preference to profiles they understand as similar to themselves, preserving homogeneity in the profiles promoted and limiting the possibility of women being promoted to leadership positions. Indeed, one of the main challenges that women leaders face is frequently being seen as outsiders by their male peers. With men being considered the majority in corporate leadership positions, women struggle to enter this group, preventing them from achieving high-status positions [35
]. However, when women start to see themselves and be seen as relevant in their networks, offering similarities in dimensions other than gender, women start to become in-group members [36
The incongruity that women often experience in leadership roles (female gender roles vs. male leadership roles) makes achieving relational authenticity challenging for many women in positions of authority. Indeed, although authentic leadership is about being who you really are, not becoming something else to be more acceptable, as Eagly [13
] stated, it would be bad advice to exhort women and other outsiders to merely be themselves and express their heartfelt values because of the challenges women leaders frequently face in being seen as outsiders by their male peers. In this regard, if women adopt stereotypically masculine styles to be considered an in-group member, this will generate a risk of backlash (i.e., reprisals for counter-stereotypical behaviour) in evaluations and adversely affect promotion considerations [37
]; however, overly feminine behaviours that are not recognized as being leader-like can inhibit a woman’s advancement to leadership roles. In this regard, in their meta-study, Eagly and Carli [38
] show that female leaders often face bias as leaders especially in masculine organizational contexts due to incongruence between stereotypes about their female gender group and attributes associated with success in gender roles. To solve this dilemma, and effectively play their leader role and so elicit the authority, trust, and confidence needed to project their vision for both followers and organizations, women may have to engage in a certain amount of acting.
In this regard, training programs that address the interpersonal processes through which relational authenticity emerges take full advantage of the changes in leadership styles (such as authentic, ethical, and transformational leadership) that have introduced fluidity whereby leader roles have become more congenial to women. In particular, relational authenticity [13
] would help women participants to activate certain leadership skills (such as democratic relationships, cooperation, mentoring, and collaboration) that are more congenial to the female gender role than traditional qualities, thus overcoming the prejudicial reactions that can come from the conflict between leader roles and the female gender role, subsequently easing fluid interactions with peers from the elite executive group for women [36
]. As there is a progressive shift toward more fluid, valued management styles, ALD programs offer women leadership styles that are more congruent with their gender group yet highly appropriate for leaders, consequently increasing women’s opportunity to develop relational authenticity. Indeed, the compatibility women feel with a more suitable management style, together with the legitimacy that stems from a more than probable recategorization as in-group leaders through relational authenticity, would impel women to play a more proactive role in their relationships with others, enhancing their individual mobility between groups, which would allow them to “permeate” into more powerful groups. To sum up, achieving relational authenticity is challenging for many women in positions of authority due to the role incongruity that they often experience in leadership roles. However, the design of ALD training programs that introduce more fluid current leadership roles more congenial to women, through which their relational authenticity can more easily emerge, further increase the odds that women success as leaders.
Finally, the third element of the program targets career planning, as women usually have a lack of agency in career advancement. Since women tend to believe that someone or something else always determines what happens to them in the long run, they also tend to live in the here-and-now [39
]. Self-direction over time is not a traditional part of women’s role ideology; therefore, women do not usually see themselves as controlling events or taking an active role in their own lives, tending to react rather than act. Henning and Jardim [40
] identified that the presence or absence of the ability to plan for the long term was essential for career advancement. An analysis on the personal and professional careers of women who made it to the top showed long-term planning as one of their most important characteristics. Besides, women commonly stop or lag in their careers due to external elements, such as family issues, pushing them further away from full control in such aspects [41
]. Furthermore, the work these women are usually involved in is characterized by working long hours and during particular hours and when they do not fit into this model, this directly hinders their job recognition and negotiation [42
], and reduces women’s agency in deciding on their careers. Women might feel that controlling their careers is also counter-stereotypical in their organizational context [43
An ALD program can provide participants tools to organize, define, and structure their future career and aspirations. Indeed, as leaders are authentic to the extent to which the leader’s self-concept is expressed in their behaviour, this implies a shift of focus from the current emphasis on the development of skills and behavioural styles to an emphasis on leaders’ self-development [16
]. In this process, as authentic leaders become more certain of their self-conceptions, they are more inclined to rely on these conceptions to organize their experiences. This gives the leader a framework for defining their existence, organizing experience, predicting future events, and guiding social interactions [44
]. This way, the ALD program provides women a unique opportunity to take a ‘time-out’ from their busy personal and professional lives and to obtain assistance in self-development, so that they can draw personal meanings from their experiences and authoring their life-stories to achieve greater self-knowledge and self-clarity and thus develop a self-concept that can be expressed through the leadership role. Thus, women participants in the leadership program deconstruct the role of the incongruity spiral (via relational authenticity) and learn about their strengths, weaknesses, motives, and values (via a reflection process), gaining the self-resolution to take control of their careers without feeling the constraints of the feminine stereotype of keeping a low status role [39
After the ALD program, women enhance their agency in career advancement [45
], taking control of their professional aspirations and promotion negotiations, breaking vertical segregation in corporations and prescriptive gender stereotypes that have inhibited women from “sit[ting] at the table” [46
] when controlling and planning their own careers.
These three elements shape the leadership roles and success of women’s professional careers. By addressing them in the leadership program, we propose the following theoretical model (Figure 1
) to explain how an authentic leadership training program can act as a key driver in removing women’s internal barriers to advance in leadership positions.
3. Materials and Methods
We use a mixed-methods approach, combining the qualitative and quantitative analyses of in-depth interviews to test the importance of an ALD training program to empower women to advance in their corporate careers. Thus, this study employed strategies of data transformation, converting qualitative findings into quantitative data [47
]. The qualitative analysis facilitated the identification of patterns, situations, or insights, whereas quantitative methods examined the direction or extent of these insights. Greene [48
] identified several purposes for using such mixed methods, including complementarity by integrating qualitative and quantitative data, development to inform future research, initiation to produce possible new insights, and the expansion of theories about the causes that prevent women from attaining top management roles.
The study was designed and developed by the research team in consultation with other experts familiar with qualitative research. The research team generated hypotheses about possible causes and associated features that prevent women from the top positions based on the theoretical model developed in the previous section. This led to the design of a semi-structured interview [49
] to understand the impact of this leadership training for women. Questions related to the barriers that keep women from entering powerful groups in organizations were developed based on previous research on women in top positions [7
To ensure the objectivity of the interview process, the authors carefully wrote and rewrote all the questions (consulting with outside third-party colleagues) both to improve construct validity and to ensure that the authors did not lead respondents in their answers [51
]. A common set of questions was presented to all participants in a semi-structured interview to identify both positive and negative experiences that have occurred over the course of the respondents’ career and how the participation in the ALD program has influenced their professional career. By establishing a climate of trust, the respondents felt safe in sharing their accurate experiences. Thus, their experiences, rather than the authors’ perspectives, drove the research.
The women’s leadership training program chosen as the intervention on women’s careers is the Promociona Project, an initiative launched in 2013 by the Spanish Confederation of Business Organizations (CEOE, a private non-profit entity, whose primary purpose is the defence and representation of business interests in society, which represents more than 2 million companies and freelancers, 200 regional and sector organizations, and 4500 associations) in cooperation with the Spanish Ministry of Gender Equality.
This project is focused on companies committed to diversity and the professional promotion of women. Candidates are selected from a pool of women managers with at least 15 years of professional experience, and with the explicit support of their companies. Until 2019, more than 600 companies and 936 female managers have participated in this program, and 51% of them have been promoted in their companies afterwards.
The aim of the Promociona Project is to identify and promote women’s talents by developing and strengthening their professional and leadership skills and abilities, as well as facilitating their access to senior management positions in companies. Throughout the project, special effort is placed on the different elements of relational authenticity to overcome the barriers that prevent women from being promoted to senior management positions. Specifically, the project starts with several self-reflection and self-knowledge exercises, as well as feedback evaluation from their colleagues, friends, and relatives, to understand how they are perceived. These evaluations and self-reflections trigger a deep revision of their personal and professional lives and constitute the starting point for the individualized coaching sessions and the mentoring process they receive. With this purpose in mind, they are told to design an Individual Development Plan (where they are and where they would like to be).
The Promociona Project also includes some executive education divided into 3 one-week modules. Module 1 focuses on understanding the role of women as leaders, expands the strategic vision in a complex and global environment, and raises awareness of equality and the creation and cultivation of social networks as an essential source of visibility in senior management positions. Module 2 aims to update knowledge in the business management and value creation processes. Finally, Module 3 provides the necessary skills to successfully manage the transition to senior management.
As a whole, the Promociona Project provides a worthy and deep network among participants, teachers, and managers and organizes different networking activities (CEO Forum, breakfasts, etc.) with prestigious business leaders and managers. This way, the project allows participants to define their personal brand and properly manage their professional networks.
Consequently, the program provides the motivation to achieve a top managerial position through personal authentic leadership, inspiring trusting relationships with peers and subordinates, improving the ability to negotiate, and being deeply aware of how they think and behave and the context in which they work.
We conducted 32 in-depth interviews with women executives that have participated in the Promociona Project. For this purpose, we signed an agreement with the CEOE, the institution that supports Promociona, to have access to participants that have already finished the program and were promoted in their organizations at least a year ago.
CEOE provided us with a database with 48 executive women who were promoted after the Promociona Project; after contacting them, 32 agreed to participate in our study. The participants belong to 18 different industries: automotive, healthcare, insurance, consulting, IT, banking, real estate, furniture retailing, catering, travel, law, advertising, electric, oil and gas, NGO, building, manufacturing, and delivery (see Table 1
The average size of the interviewees’ firms, measured by the number of employees worldwide, is 117,246 (90% of these corporations are multinationals). The women’s ages range between early to mid-30s to 50s, working in their respective companies for an average of 13 years.
Women who agreed to participate in our study (two thirds of those contacted) were scheduled for an interview with a woman researcher. Given the sensitive nature of the topics covered in our interviews, interviews began with an explanation of the purpose of the research, a reiteration of the assurance of confidentiality, and an opportunity to allow respondents to ask any questions before starting. While 12 of the interviews were conducted face-to-face in the respondents’ offices, the remaining 20 were conducted by phone or online by Skype or similar apps due to COVID-19 mobility restrictions. Phone interviews have been shown to produce as reliable information as face-to-face interviews and, in some cases, may even increase respondents’ ability to discuss sensitive information, such as experiences of discrimination [52
]. Online interviews are particularly appropriate in research that requires access to geographically dispersed research subjects [53
], but during the COVID-19 period, its use has been compulsory due to the confinement, restrictions on mobility, and meetings limitations decreed by the Spanish government in March 2020.
Interviewers were instructed to ask all questions in the interview except when a participant had already covered that material in another answer. Each interview lasted one hour on average, was recorded by the interviewer, and transcribed by a cohort of undergraduate students. All of them were supervised and double checked by the authors. Data were collected from January 2020 to November 2020.
Transcriptions of all the interviews were entered into Nvivo 12 to organize and manage data. Interview questions focused on three primary areas: low(-er) self-efficacy perception of the respondent; (lack of) social capital; and (lack of) long-term life-working planning. Specifically, we asked for these three topics in two different moments of time: how they felt about them before enrolling in the Promociona Project (T0), and after finishing the Promociona Project (T2). Implicitly (i.e., without direct questioning), we looked for the three drivers that could be leading the improvements experienced by the participants during the training program (T1): leader eudaemonic well-being episodes; relational authenticity; and internal reflections about their own careers (i.e., life-story approach of authentic leaders). Table 2
illustrates the codes and definitions used in this article.
To calibrate the coding methods, three interviews were randomly selected and independently analysed by four authors to identify content representative of the hypothesized nodes, as well as novel themes. After coding, the four readers discussed the nodes and segments of the text representing them and agreed on node labels and definitions, developing a codebook that facilitated reliability among raters. The remaining 29 transcripts were then coded separately by two authors using the codebook and rating interview transcripts according to whether the content appeared to pertain to one or more of the defined nodes.
Transcriptions were completely anonymized. The two coding authors then compared their individual assessments. The reliability of the coding between the authors resulted in 99.38% agreement. Given the assurance of confidentiality to the respondents, the authors did not involve a third party in coding the interviews.
Our results indicate promising avenues regarding the triggers that facilitate women’s corporate careers. By exploring the experiences and advancements of women participating in an ALD training program, namely, the Promociona Project, we shed light on the internal obstacles that women participants face in their way up the corporate ladder and the processes that could erode these barriers by enrolling in this training program. In particular, our findings indicate that this specific ALD training program for executive women created great improvements in their self-perception and confidence, as well as on their capacity to network and their levels of resolution in becoming agents of their own career in the long term. This way, the effectiveness of this ALD program for women executives to advance their corporate careers acted as a trigger event, making the participants more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and offering them the possibility of learning, reflecting, and uncovering their real traits in authentic leadership to break the glass ceiling.
The ALD program has a strong and reinforcing effect on women participants’ authentic leadership by promoting higher self-esteem, relational and social capital, and career advancement agency. With regard to women’s self-view, we observe that women participants showed higher self-esteem and self-efficacy perceptions after participating in the ALD program. The theoretical model proposed the catalyser for this higher satisfaction with themselves would be an eudaemonic engagement process, whereby women activate a search of accomplishment and fulfillment with their professional activity, through which they would improve their self-esteem and, therefore, the perception of their efficacy at work. Instead, we find that it is a different mechanism, although it has a key role when helping women to overcome this personal barrier; this tool is the one known as the life-story approach, through which women give meaning to their experienced circumstances and events and recognize their past mistakes, but also, and most important, their strengths, values, and vision. This life review, with its lights and shadows, seems to be triggering a sense of pride in women’s personal and professional growth, which would lead to a higher self-view. It is this ability to achieve self-knowledge that gives women the self-concept clarity to abandon the stereotype of following a low status role and so leads them to negotiate, ask, and claim for leadership, allowing them to increase their visibility as good leaders.
The fostering of their social and relational capital is the second improvement in their career uprising. The ALD program gives them the tools and mechanisms needed to activate their congenial leadership styles, overcoming potential internal barriers (dilemma of role incongruity) and prejudicial external reactions (backlash effects) from the leader-female role conflict, and thus facilitating their followers’ personal and social identification with them. Indeed, the results suggest that once women feel comfortable with a more congruent management style and are legitimated as authentic leaders by the Promociona Project, they start using their networks in an instrumental way for their careers; women start becoming part of the influential networks.
In this recategorization process as authentic leaders, the senior manager mentors, assigned by the Promociona Project to each participant through a cross-mentoring program, may play an important role. Indeed, through her mentor, the mentee can learn how to gain legitimacy to exert authority and set the “tone at the top” according to her values and personal qualities. Additionally, mentors that act consistently with the new ways being taught throughout the covered subjects would offer the required guidance in the socialization process that involves training to develop authentic leaders [56
], as well as modelling the various positive psychological states of authentic leaders [12
Finally, the third effect activated by the program is the realization of the need to be an active agent in their career advancement. The project acts as a driver for a life-review through which participants’ vital and professional experiences are revised and redirected. This way, the project assists participants in finding opportunities for growth and development through a guided reflection process. Through this life-review procedure, women learn about their personal and professional strengths and weaknesses and realize the need to find their self-direction over time, thus controlling and gaining legitimacy over their own career and not waiting to be discovered by someone else in the corporation. As a result of this awareness process, women begin to act proactively to enhance their agency and take control of their career.
A key element of this life review process is the construction of personal narratives returning to the experience (replaying it in the mind and/or recounting it to others, often with the help of questions asked by a facilitator, counsellor, or coach), through which individuals attempt to establish coherent connections among life events and drawing lessons from it. This enables him or her to analyse and interpret reality in a way that gives it a personal meaning, and, therefore, provide her/him with the knowledge and clarity about their values and convictions needed to develop their potential to become authentic leaders [16
]. In our case, this guided review process that helps women to envision themselves in leadership roles is accomplished through a coaching process designed by the Project through which the women revisit their professional experiences, their life, and where they want to go, helping them to design an Individual Development Plan.
5.1. Practical Implications
One of the main practical implications of the study is that it is possible to design an ALD training program that helps participants to develop the skills needed to exercise authentic leadership, such as reflexive abilities that foster self-awareness and relational authenticity. This is especially relevant given the challenges associated with learning authentic leadership that have been recognized by many authors [57
In particular, it seems that through a diversified activity program of trigger events, experiential activities, and interactional situations (e.g., personalized cross-mentoring program, coaching, and networking activities, networking events led by prestigious business leaders), women can learn to activate leadership styles that are more congenial with their gender group, likely contrary to the traditional male leadership characteristics but not too far removed to be considered a social out-group in leadership (i.e., neither too masculine or too feminine). Indeed, our results show relational authenticity confers women the similarities needed in other dimensions different from gender to help them becoming recategorized as in-group in leadership and so increase their probabilities to break the glass ceiling in their organizations. This is possible in part because, as Braun et al. [10
] argue, the contemporary understanding of what it means to be a good leader appears to lean toward communal attributes, which are associated with female leaders, and authentic leadership represents a communal leadership style.
Finally, the model presented here will assist researchers and practitioners in designing new ALD programs for women leaders or improving existing ones. In this regard, our analysis shows that there are two training facilitators that act as key triggers to activate the phenomena of women’s self-perception improvement, fostering their relational capital and truly becoming agents of their career advancement. These drivers are the relational authenticity that comes from the development of more congruent leadership styles and the ability to learn from experience through a life-story approach, which are relatively easy to apply for those who would like to design this type of development program for women managers.
5.2. Limitations of the Study
Although the paper delves deep into women participants’ careers and the impact of the ALD program, Promociona, we are also aware of the investigation’s limitations. The main limitation of this work is the sample size. Although the current sample size is quite enough to clearly reveal the impact of the ALD program when overcoming women’s internal barriers, it would be desirable to increase the sample size to strengthen the validity of the quantitative results.
Another potential limitation is that the data collected for analysis were subjective perceptions of women participants, as they were asked to share their concerns and worries about their professional advancement and the personal abilities, attitudes, and behaviours achieved through the program to overcome their personal barriers. This subjective perception can be a source of errors in the results, given that the interviewed women participants, which are very engaged in the program, can be overvaluing its impact on the reduction of their internal barriers because of its boosting effect. In this regard, to check if the psychological positive capital from this style of leadership development is real and persistent, it would be convenient to track their results over time, in a longitudinal study design. Additionally, it would be interesting to have a control group (i.e., women who applied and were not accepted) to see if their career experiences are less progressive. Besides, authentic leadership needs to be addressed on a long-term and daily basis, not just in an isolated and single training program. As far as men are the majority in top-level positions, they would need to learn how to engage authentically with their female colleagues, in order to foster a more inclusive environment within which authentic female leaders can grow.
Finally, we only focus on women’s internal barriers (i.e., supply-side barriers), whereas there could be an important number of demand-side barriers (i.e., conscious or unconscious bias in the promotion processes on behalf of the personnel in charge of hiring and promotions) that women have to struggle with when trying to advance their professional careers. Thus, an analysis including the demand side, that is, the company side, could reveal how the project could also help women participants to gain the confidence to develop coping strategies of resilience for these external barriers and that they could be managed better or worse when ascending the corporate ladder.
5.3. Future Research
It would be interesting to replicate this analysis in a few years to confirm the potential long-lasting effects of the program and to understand whether the program has been able to compensate the traditional distance between women and men in their career advancements. As authenticity has a strong relational component, a promising avenue of research would be to investigate if the program also helps to change others’ views of women as leaders (e.g., peers, subordinates, and superiors). In the present study, we only observed women’s perceptions regarding the breakdown of stereotypes about them as women leaders after the program and their improvement in social capital that could signal the fact that they have become recategorized as in-group leaders. Nevertheless, to confirm if this recategorization process is really taking place, we would need to ask male members of the elite leadership in-group before and after women enrol in the program. Another promising line of research would be using a pretest–posttest study to evaluate, in a more quantitative way, if the intervention has been successful in the development of authentic leaders. To do this, it would be convenient to use the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire by Walumbwa et al. [21
] and/or create an assessment that models an Implicit Association Test, but adapted to measure an attribute of interest, such as ethical behaviour or morality. Another thread to pull would be to analyse if the development of authentic leadership among the participants could be linked to more ethically concerned companies. An additional area of study could also be to explore how authentic leadership is related to the traits of the traditional leadership styles. To do this, one could use Bass and Avolio’s multifactor leadership questionnaire [59
]. A suggested line of inquiry would be to address the problematization of authentic leadership style. In this vein, it would be interesting to design and conduct in-depth interviews to address issues regarding authentic leadership downsides, as well as their possible positive or negative links to doing managerial work, taking on responsibility, mastering challenges, and delivering results. Finally, it also would be desirable to examine the training program in different cultural contexts (currently the program is being carried out in Portugal and also in Chile), as the results could be generalized or nuanced depending on the cultural context.