Academic evidence suggests that the answer is yes, to a degree. In particular, women who are high-performing and already successful tend to see their prospects improve under a woman’s leadership. In one study, for example, a group of Italian researchers looked at the compensation of individual workers at big Italian manufacturing firms between 1982 and 1997. They found that female leadership had a positive effect on wages for women in more senior roles (and, as it happens, that firms with more women leaders performed better).
What causes this? The study’s lead author Luca Flabbi, a professor of economics at Georgetown, told me that he believes that women are better than men at reading other women and assigning them to the jobs commensurate with their experience. When a female executive replaces a male executive at a firm, she can better see the talent of senior women and put them in positions that match their talent. Since this is a better fit for these women, they do better work, and enhance the firm’s performance. “She puts them in more productive positions, and she is right, and that’s why the performance goes up,” he told me.
Another study looked at the role of women on corporate boards and found a similar effect: The higher the share of women on corporate boards one year, the more likely the company was to hire women executives in the following year, the study’s authors, David Matsa, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northewestern, and Amalia R Miller, an economics professor at the University of Virginia, discovered. This may be because women know each other through professional networks, and when there are women at the top—say on a corporate board—they help refer women to positions that otherwise might have been filled by men, Matsa told me. The increase also could have been because women discriminate less against each other, and hire them for executive positions, he said.
This same dynamic has been identified again and again. One report on 21,000 firms from 91 countries by the Peterson Institute for International Economics concluded that having women on the board increases the ranks of women executives. (It also found that companies with women on the boards tend to be more profitable than those with just men.) And a study of New York City advertising agencies over a 13-year period found that when an agency has more female managers, more newly-created jobs are first filled by women. “Women’s desire to create distinctiveness is stronger when they work with others who are similar to them,” the authors, Lisa E. Cohen and Joseph P. Broschak, write. This finding may indicate that there may be room in women-headed companies for ambitious women to create new jobs that hadn’t already existed.
But while women who are top performers may benefit under women’s leadership, women who aren’t very good at their jobs may not. In a 2015 study, Berkeley researchers Sameer B. Srivastava and Eliot L. Sherman found that some women actually have worse outcomes under female supervisors. They looked at five years of in-depth data from a 1,700-person firm in the information-services industry, and found that most female managers had no effect on the wages of women below them. Yet drilling down into data, they found that some lower-performing women who switched from a male supervisor to a high-performing female supervisor had a lower salary the following year than men who made the same switch. This may be because the supervisor feels threatened by the worker’s poor performance, and worries she may be implicated in it. “Female managers, perhaps responding to collective threat, appeared to act in ways that amplified, rather than diminished, the gender wage gap,” they write.