Women and Senior Organizational Leadership

Sections of this topic

    Women, Power, and Leadership

    In Cathy Curran’s blog on July 7, Women, Power, and Leadership, she talks about how, in the past 40 years, women have become increasingly important players in the business and professional worlds, including positions of leadership. She says that while a glass ceiling still exists and, even though more and more women are getting past it, women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles. Cathy states that one reason more women have not made the transition into leadership is that the socialization of women still does not prepare them to handle organizational power and influence. She contends that among all the leadership skills taught to prospective female managers and leaders, education in the successful use of personal and organizational power is lacking. Cathy suggests that some of the more individualistic – and traditionally more masculine — skills and qualities, such as independence in thought, action, and decision-making, taking risks, and understanding competition, are ones that women will need to intentionally put more time into developing to make a successful transition into organizational leadership roles.

    Gender Disparity in Senior Leadership

    I certainly agree that the leadership traits prioritized by most organizations could largely be described as masculine or agentic (i.e. someone who demonstrates assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, and courageousness). Not only that, but I would argue the majority of competency models in organizations continue to manifest a bias toward traditional leadership qualities and skills. Despite this, the number of women in the managerial and professional ranks in the United States has steadily increased in the past 30 years, and research now shows that women currently hold 51% of managerial and professional positions (Welle, 2004). It is interesting that while these numbers are significantly larger today than ever before, the movement of women into senior leadership positions continues to be incredibly slow. According to Welle, among Fortune 500 companies, only 16% of corporate officers, 14% of board directors, 5% of top earners, and just over 1% of CEOs are women.

    Influence of Gender Stereotypes

    What is the explanation for this continued disparity at the top? Recent studies reveal that although gender stereotypes are slowly but surely changing in the corporate ranks, women in these settings continue to be viewed as having more nurturing, supportive, and communal tendencies, and are evaluated more harshly than men if they demonstrate these qualities, especially in more senior leadership roles. Ironically, women managers, on average, actually score higher than men on objective measures of agentic or traditional leadership qualities but still are not well represented in executive positions (Duehr & Bono, 2006).

    Bias at the Top

    It appears that more traditionally feminine qualities, while more often valued and perceived as effective at middle manager levels, are not seen as having the same relative value for senior-level positions, especially in larger companies. It seems clear that in a majority of corporations, the competencies most valued at senior levels of leadership continue to be the more traditionally masculine (e.g. being keenly focused on the financial bottom line, capacity for critical and strategic thinking, and the ability to make risky and independent decisions). There are of course many unfortunate ironies and outcomes associated with these biases. While many women appear to possess the traits viewed as important for senior leadership, they are frequently not perceived to have enough of these qualities, especially by the individuals who make decisions about senior leader advancement. If this is true, it would seem that further development in women of certain, more agentic qualities and talents, will be important — as Kathy Curran states – but it is likely that changes in perception, or a changing of the guard, may also need to take place. If the glaring gender disparity in executive positions is going to shift, there will likely need to be a perceptual shift within the ranks of those who make promotional and hiring decisions for these roles.