Barriers For Women Towards Leadership Positions

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Despite the previous discussed positive changes for women in the workplace and in society, there are still relatively few women in (top) leadership positions and there are still many women that ‘drop-out‘ before they reach the top (Desvaux et al., 2008). Academics proposed a variety of theories to explain this phenomenon; the most important ones are discussed in the next paragraphs.

Formal Obstacles
These barriers are the result of the organisations’ corporate policies and practices. While these are more objective, these barriers are easier to change. Training and career development, promotion and compensation policies are identified major obstacles for women (Oakley 2000). Too often these practices are in favour of men, and this is even stronger for positions that are part of the typical career path of a future senior manager. For example, young women are often not offered positions in areas such as operations, manufacturing or marketing. Without this line experience they often find themselves excluded from the higher levels of management later in their career. Another problem is the gender wage gap, a situation in which men and women with equivalent training experience, education and position receive a different pay (Petersen and Morgan, 1995). This affects the perceived gender equality and the therewith associated social roles and leadership abilities. Also, because women often face a trade-off between their family and career, support in this area is needed (Eagly, 2007). Therefore, the lack of family-friendly workplace policies, such as part-time positions, child-care support or flexible working policies, is also identified as a common barrier to women (Dreher 2003).

When there are only a few women on prominent positions in an organisation there is the risk for tokenism. This is a situation in which women are treated as symbols or representatives of the social group to which they belong (Kanter, 1978). Tokens must perform their jobs under conditions that are very different from those colleagues in similar positions. They have high visibility, which makes that their work and actions are always noticed. However, to have their personal achievements noticed and valued is more challenging. Token women can feel the pressure of trying not to make male co-workers look bad, or trying to not over perform on group tasks. Thus even though they need to work twice as hard just to be seen as competent, they feel that their successes should be kept to themselves. Sociologist Rosabeth Kanter (1978) also found in her research that token women are constantly reminded of their outsider status. The different treatment they receive, their physical appearance, the interaction and behaviour between male colleagues can reinforce the feeling of not being part of ‘the club’. Consequently, the social and psychological pressure of token status can have a negative effect on woman’s feelings and attitudes on the long-term.

Women spend insufficient time on socializing with colleagues and building professional networks. Maack and Passet (1993) state that networks have an important role to play in building a sense of community, in keeping up to date with new developments, in sharing knowledge and information and as a way of learning about what is going on in a particular profession. It is acknowledged as an essential route to senior management positions, as the main advantages are access to visibility, support, and upward mobility (Garavan et al., 2003). In the context of women, Bierema (1996) highlights that women learn about the corporate culture through relationships. The phrase the ‘old boys’ network’ referred originally to elite alumni associations, who created an informal system of mutual support and favours throughout their life. Today, it represents an informal male social system that stretches within and across organisations. It is an essential dimension of organisational life, and its significance needs to be realised. Women are largely excluded from these informal networks that are traditionally composed of men; women are considered as a threat (Timberlake, 2005). One of the reasons given by Oakley (2000) for this male behaviour is that ‘if women attained senior positions in large numbers, they would be likely to challenge the present male dominant cultural norms and informal practices’. For career progression access to these networks is vital, this is the place where many promotions are promised and decisions are made (Lineham, 2001). In this regards the ‘old boys’ network consistently emerges as an important barrier for women.

Bias Resulting From Gender Stereotypes
Deriving from gender stereotypes people have widely shared conscious and unconscious mental associations about men and women, leading to prejudice (Eagly, 1987). Gender stereotypes are both descriptive and prescriptive. They refer to differences in how women and men are, but also indicate norms about how they should behave. In general, research on gender stereotypes shows that people consider men to have more agentic qualities (e.g., are more assertive, competitive, daring, and courageous) and women to have more communal qualities (e.g., are more gentle, kind, supportive, expressive, affectionate, and tactful) (Carli & Eagly; Deaux & Kite, 1993; Heilman, 2001; Williams & Best, 1990).

According to Eagly (2002) women leaders find themselves in a double blind: ‘if they are highly communal, they may be criticised for not being agentic enough. But if they are highly agentic, they may be criticised for lacking communion. Either way, they may leave the impression that they don’t have the right stuff for powerful jobs”.

Issues of Leadership Style 
Deriving from the above presented ‘double blind’, it is difficult for women to develop a leadership style that is both appropriate and effective. Eagly (2002) states that ‘conforming to their gender role can produce a failure to meet the requirements of their leader role, and conforming to their leader role can produce a failure to meet the requirements of their gender role’. Men have therefore an advantageous position for leadership as their social roles as the culturally shared set of beliefs and expectations of how they should behave, overlaps with the leadership stereotype. This in contrast to women, where there is an incongruity between the prescriptive stereotype and the leadership stereotype (Eagly, 2002).

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