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Growing Up in Poverty Makes Growing into Leadership Roles Difficult

Minimum income initiatives and child credits the first steps of a long leadership track
Worn out shoes

In the race to join the ranks of leaders, you have no shortage of advice on the necessary skills to develop: effective communications, strategic thinking, emotional intelligence, a growth mindset. But what if not everyone is kicking off the race at the same starting line?

A recent study by Smith School of Business researchers Julian Barling and Julie Weatherhead revealed one important — and often ignored — predictor of leadership emergence that falls squarely outside of an individual’s realm of control: whether or not people grow up in poverty.

Barling, professor of organizational behaviour and Borden Chair of Leadership, and Weatherhead, a graduate student, analyzed data collected from 9,964 American study participants who self-reported their socioeconomic status, labour force participation, and childhood experiences on an annual basis over the course of 33 years. Barling and Weatherhead first noted the participants’ poverty status, gender, and the quality of their schooling as of 1979, when the participants were children. They then analyzed the participants’ sense of personal mastery — their belief that they could overcome failures and control their own lives — as of 1992. Finally, the researchers noted which participants had ended up in leadership roles by 1998. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

What they discovered is that poverty significantly affects a person’s chance of snagging leadership roles in the future — but it does so rather sneakily, targeting a few other factors that contribute to how leadership emerges.

Poverty, Schooling, and Leadership

One of the most significant ways in which poverty affects leadership emergence is through its effect on children’s schooling, Barling and Weatherhead say. Unfortunately, in Canada, schools in high-income neighbourhoods have become increasingly correlated with higher test scores, while students in lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods fall behind. There are several reasons for that correlation.

Schools in lower socioeconomic areas are often forced to work with inadequate resources and typically offer fewer opportunities — such as team sports or extracurricular activities —  for youth to sharpen their social and leadership skills. Teacher quality is lower than it is in schools located in richer neighbourhoods, and both teacher absenteeism and turnover are higher.

High-quality schools also tend to have more appropriate role models filling staff roles, more positive peer relationships, and fewer discipline issues, which means students of different socioeconomic backgrounds are receiving profoundly different socializing experiences.

Teachers tend to perceive children from less affluent families more negatively, holding them to lower academic expectations

Even when children from low socioeconomic backgrounds end up in better schools, they’re often treated differently than students from more affluent families. Teachers tend to perceive children from less affluent families more negatively, seeing them as less socially skilled than their peers and holding them to lower academic expectations.

Between teachers’ bias, inferior school quality, and a lack of opportunities, it should come as no surprise that persistent exposure to poverty ultimately affects children’s cognitive, behavioural, and emotional development. Considering that low income is also a significant predictor of children leaving home earlier or becoming parents at a younger age, poorer students also face a higher chance of dropping out of school early and missing valuable years of education.

The effects of poverty on children’s schooling is a direct hit to their leadership emergence for several reasons, the researchers note. First, general intelligence is one of the strongest links to leadership emergence, and growing up in poverty significantly affects children’s academic development. But even more importantly, perceived intelligence is an even stronger predictor of leadership emergence. Hiring managers routinely select those from more recognized, successful schools to fill leadership roles, leaving those who grew up in poverty at a distinct disadvantage.

Poverty Dampens Personal Mastery

Poverty also has a significant effect on children’s sense of personal mastery, or their belief they can exert control over their environment. Children who experience persistent poverty often cannot exert control over their circumstances — and they are frequently victims of negative environments than are children from affluent environments.

Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds frequently witness their parents exposed to the harsh realities of poverty. As skilled as their parents may be, many are employed in jobs with low levels of autonomy, low pay, and high risk of physical hazards. Low-wage and low-skill jobs are also more prone to turnover, so children may see their parents repeatedly lose jobs despite their best efforts.

When these children grow up, they often are beset by higher levels of depression and tend to engage in fewer leadership behaviours — making decisions, speaking up in meetings, sharing opinions — than their peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. They lack involvement in social institutions, while those who have developed a healthy sense of personal mastery participate actively in issues they feel they can control.

Without a healthy sense of personal mastery, Barling and Weatherhead say, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to be shut out of competitions for leadership positions.

A Double Whammy for Women?

There is, however, a gender twist. Barling and Weatherhead found that developing a strong sense of personal mastery significantly predicted later leadership, but only for the men they studied. When they analyzed the link between personal mastery and leadership role occupancy for the surveyed women, that significant relationship disappeared.

While proactivity, speaking up, and taking control are all seen as signs of leadership, they are often inconsistent with traditional female stereotypes, the researchers note. When women are reminded of traditional gender stereotypes, they actually opt for lower status, non-leadership positions. (Although when they are not reminded of conservative gender roles, they aim just as high as men do.)

Since women are traditionally stereotyped as being more community-oriented and less assertive than men, they are often seen as less predisposed to be leaders. Thanks to these stereotypes, even when women display leadership behaviours, they’re often punished for them rather than rewarded. So even when women manage to develop a strong sense of personal mastery, it’s no help to them in climbing the leadership ladder.

Aiming at Root Issues

There are ways to end the negative effects of poverty on leadership emergence. Barling and Weatherhead say primary interventions to reduce poverty, such as minimum income initiatives or child credits, have been proven to increase students’ test scores, attendance, and probability of completing high school. These programs not only boost children’s school achievements: increasing family incomes can also increase their levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness, two personality traits that are highly linked to leadership emergence.

Since primary interventions are costly and rarely implemented, Barling and Weatherhead suggest several secondary interventions as well. Schools in lower socioeconomic areas could be improved by enhancing access to activities that develop kids’ personal mastery (such as extracurricular activities, team sports, and advanced placement classes). The Social Market Foundation, an independent think tank, suggests increasing teacher wages in lower socioeconomic areas in order to incentivize both tenure and quality. Schools should also begin using stereotype threat intervention techniques while girls are young to encourage them to take on leadership roles in the future.

Finally, a top-down approach can work as well. Simply presenting hiring managers with information that combats stereotypes has been seen to reduce their biases, meaning both women and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds would have a better chance at snagging leadership roles, despite the other speed bumps in their way.

Kenza Moller

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