Earlier this week I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. with a male colleague. As the sidewalk terrain changed from cement to various types of paved bricks, I commented, “They sure didn’t consider women wearing high heels when they invented cobblestone pavers.” To which my male colleague replied, “Uh, I think the consideration of women is a relatively new concept.” We chuckled at his quick retort, but his words got me thinking. Women’s rights, at least in the United States, are still relatively new and by the same token, so are the rights of so many different cultures.
As a child born in the 1970’s, I was blissfully unaware of the climate changes taking place because of the academic research on gender and leadership occurring when I was born (Chemers, 1997 as cited by Northouse, 2018). Forty years ago scholars asked the question of whether women could lead (Northouse, 2018). Obviously given the current state of affairs around the world, we know that women can lead. The United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher and India’s Indira Gandhi paved the way for current female leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel. Perhaps the United States will even see a female president within our lifetime. Imagine how groundbreaking it would be to see someone like Condoleezza Rice seated in the Oval Office. So now that females are making their way into leadership roles, researchers are studying why there is still such an underrepresentation of women in these roles (Northouse, 2018). While there are many explanations to answer this question, I think the most logical reason is simply that change takes time.
We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.
The proverbial “glass ceiling” describes the issue that women face when trying to reach senior leadership roles. It implies that we can see upward, but hit an invisible ceiling that prevents women from reaching the top. One theory about why women are not in leadership positions by reasons that women just haven’t been in managerial positions long enough to promote into senior leadership roles. Northouse (2013) refers to this as the “pipeline theory.” However, there’s not much support for this theory as women have been earning advanced business degrees for too long to not be at the top by now. Another theory posits that women just don’t have the experience necessary to occupy leadership roles (Ragins, Townsend, and Mattis, 1998). This explanation is a bit more realistic given that women do not generally have strong mentor relationships like men do (PSU WC, L13, 2019). And finally, some feel that women are simply less suited to handle the demands of a senior leadership position, are not qualified, and lack self-confidence (Heilman, 1997; Morrison, 1992; Morris, 1998, as cited by PSU WC, L13, 2019). Obviously generalized statements like this are simply unfounded.
Women face a plethora of organizational barriers – “conditions and practices that put women at a disadvantage” (PSU WC, L13, 2019). Women are expected to perform at a higher standard than their male counterparts. A good representation of this stereotype is seen on television in shows like Grey’s Anatomy that follows the career of a young female surgeon. Granted there is a lot of drama on the show that isn’t part of the real world, but all the same, the career defining moments are highlighted and demonstrate how women have to perform better, faster, and more accurate than men in order to be taken seriously. Women also often face uninviting cultures that believe women belong in the home. And while some women do have the sole responsibility of caring for their families and do face work-life imbalance, this is not the case for all women.
Another barrier is found in group-think situations where men hire other men simply because people like to be surrounded by others similar to themselves. This phenomena also spans interpersonal barriers that women face. Gender prejudice, though on the decline over the last 30 years, is still prevalent today (PSU WC, L13, 2019). This type of gender bias is evident in business transactions that take place on the golf course or in the locker room of the country club. These types of informal networks generally exclude women (PSU WC, L13, 2019).
Thankfully, for me personally, I work in a public institution that employs a pretty even mix of men and women. We’ve had a female chancellor in the past, and I’m sure we’ll have another one in the future. We have a lot of female faculty and many, many women in senior leadership roles. And while I don’t believe our campus planners consider shoe types when choosing how to pave our sidewalks, high heels are definitely not a requirement for anyone, including the women in senior leadership roles.
Chemers, M. M. (1997). An integrative theory of leadership. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: theory and practice (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2019). PSYCH 485 Lesson 13: Introduction to leadership and diversity. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2008237/modules/items/27074768.
Ragins, B., Townsend, B., & Mattis, M. (1998). Gender gap in the executive suite: CEOs and female executives report on breaking the glass ceiling. Academy of Management Executive, 12(1), 28-42.