Managerial Derailment: Gender Bias and Loss of Mentorship

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Despite the considerable resources available for management and leadership training, and despite the large numbers of research studies carried out to understand and improve management and leadership development, great managers are a rare find. Gallup’s research shows that about one in 10 people possess high talent to manage. Indeed, many new executives either fail or experience inadequate success. Estimates of outright failure in the first 18 months range from 38% to over 50%.

Failure and inadequate success are aspects of a phenomenon called “managerial derailment.” Derailment is used as a metaphor of a train coming off the track. The train derailment is usually unintentional, resulting into considerable damage to both the individual and the organization. Managers derail when they fail to achieve anticipated career outcomes, and are involuntarily plateaued, demoted, or fired without reaching the level expected of them.

Results from a recent study examining gender bias in perceptions of derailment potential indicate that supervisors can have subtle, even subconscious differences in expectations for the behavior of male and female managers. These different expectations may result in costly consequences for women in the workplace.

The study (Dropped on the Way to the Top: Gender and Managerial Derailment) includes not only analysis of data collected on nearly 50,000 managers enrolled in leadership development programs, but also experimental research where managers examined performance reviews of two fictitious employees whose only difference was their gender. The researchers found that although ineffective interpersonal behaviors were slightly less frequent among female managers when compared to the male counterpart, the same behaviors were slightly more damaging to women than men when present. The researchers did not find evidence of bias in performance evaluations, but bias emerged when leaders were asked about derailment potential in the future. The biased assessment related to the derailment potential resulted in female managers receiving less mentoring, a benefit especially important to female advancement in the workplace.

Joyce Bono, lead author of the study, said in a press release: “If you’re doing performance evaluations, there’s a record in an HR file you could reference, and gender bias could be identified and dealt with. But perceptions of derailment potential exist in a supervisor’s head. They’re never recorded. They’re informal assessments that supervisors make, yet they have important implications for the opportunities that supervisors provide.”

The study suggests that women are held to higher standards in terms of how they get along with others. Thus, women who want to climb the corporate ladder and avoid derailment should pay careful attention to maintaining healthy relationships at work. In addition, the study indicates that women at risk for derailment need to seek feedback, mentoring, and developmental assignments in ways that do not exclusively depend on their immediate supervisor. It is essential that women actively build informal networks they can access for career advice and mentoring—both inside and outside of their organizations.

In their paper, the researchers conclude that: “Considered as a whole, the results of these studies suggest that gender bias, while subtle, is alive and well—and that it may limit women‘s career advancement in more insidious ways than previously understood. Greater understanding of how perceptions of derailment potential are formed and how they influence leaders‘ behavior is needed.”

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. I often wonder how easy it’ll be to build relationships with people outside of work that’ll be beneficial to promotions and even better jobs. Simply because those who you work with on a daily basis have a great idea of how you are as a worker and as a person and that plays who a huge role in who you know. When women are “too friendly” in the workplace and are offered higher positions, rumors are spread about them. When women are “too strict” in the workplace, people lose respect for them and because of that experience the feedback will always be negative. So what do we do and who do we go to for honest, appropriate feedback when these instances occur?

    • I feel as women we can build healthy relationships if we just stop worrying about obtaining those relationships. By us developing those relationships naturally, I believe those will be the best people to gain appropriate feedback from because they know who we are more on a personal level. Also, it never hurts to get feedback from everyone because we never know who is willing to help. So my advice would be to be open to everyone that is willing to give us that honest feedback that we’re looking for that will help us in the future. Furthermore, I believe if we are our authentic selves others would have no choice but to respect our decisions as women and would appreciate us being ourselves. As women, I feel we overthink everything when all of this could come naturally for us if we weren’t concern about the negative and we focus more on the positive.

  2. I am a lead caterer for this part-time job and have worked there for 6 years now. The managers for the catering department have not got a training program in place for new caterers, leading to the problem where I lead events with male staff who do not respect me in part because I am a woman. When I co-lead with a man, the staff respond to the directions and orders given by him but disregard my instructions. This limits me in my job because people start to assume I am not good at my job when it’s that the staff has not been trained to follow instructions from a woman lead. Although this is not at the high level of manager, I struggle with the idea that this may follow me into my career. In this job, I do not really have a great female mentor because the catering directors, who are women, are very openly sexist. They will staff an event with more males, for heavy lifting and staff women for the decorating. They even say a women bartender is better because “the pretty face attracts more customers”. Having these women as boss, sets a very sexist environment for new employees to adapt to.

    That is why I believe, strongly, that all businesses need to have a training program to train against bias in the managerial position. Women in these higher positions do not need to suffer from biased mindsets of their staff. They deserve to be respected and seen as a boss, without taking into consideration the gender of the individual. Women need to have mentors, or bosses, who do not have a sexist mindset, to be a role model for the staff. If the staff do not see the heads of the business with sexist attitudes, but an attitude working to fix this problem, the women in the managerial position will not suffer the derailment in their career.

    • Tamryn,
      It is so interesting how males sometimes openly express their sexism in service jobs. I find that this is actually way more common in jobs in food service. I had a similar experience at Zaxby’s, where the male manager would sometimes joke I had to work in the front because I was pretty, and my female friend had to work in the kitchen because she was not. For you, I imagine this becomes a problem in striving for advancement. I imagine that if you were to try to achieve a higher level in your job despite the years you worked there, you would have a hard time. The men you worked with would probably say you were bossy and expressed little authority. Your superiors will not want to deal with this. On the other hand, if you were to speak up about the sexism, it probably would not end well either. To make matters worse, in a lot of these service jobs there are little to no women who will stand up against sexism. They are just in to deep.

      In response, I feel the best response is to report. It does not look good for a company if they are allowed to say such things, such as you only have a job because you are pretty. I also like the idea having a paper trail of both your achievements and the maltreatment from other employees and bosses. This way you can verify all of the things you claim at the time of your advancement.

  3. As a previous assistant manager, I truly believe the training program put in place at my job was horrible and insufficient for the employees who want to move up the corporate ladder. Its especially insufficient when the managers who train you aren’t well trained themselves. Multiple reasons for bad managers are lack of communication, low productivity, bad training programs and low moral. I can say that the male managers have been more mentors to me than the female managers. They are more open to help you when you are in need and are open to teach you more skills you didn’t know. Some of the women mentors I have had that have trained me kinda really didn’t put in much effort. They would say I didn’t have anyone to guide me, I learned myself. They also didn’t make time for training. I really I to train myself and research things I had to do as I got prepared for my promotion. I feel if employers develop better training programs and environment, more people will be motivated to strive producing better managers.

    • YES. One of my part-time jobs I worked at a year ago had almost zero management. It was a family owned business, but the owner also had another company that most of his time went into. There were no inventory lists, only sticky notes we would leave in his mail box letting him know what products we were running out of. What I’m getting at is that having someone who knows what they are doing goes a long way. One of my co-workers had thankfully been working at the store for years, so she was able to train me. This was not her job though, and it put an unnecessarily burden on her. I feel like people assume women are more willing to pick up the slack at work because we’re “nice”. Honestly, my co-worker should have been getting paid much more than she did considering all the extra work she had to do. Having experiences like this only reiterate the need women have for a mentor who is willing (and not being forced) to help you.

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