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Academic Review - Barriers to Female Leadership

An academic review of the literature and research on the barriers to female leadership was a key input into #WomanUp, an action plan on female leadership published by WoW in November 2017.  The literature review was conducted by a team of MSc Human Resource Management graduates from UCD Smurfit School of Business. This review was completed in late early 2016.  

Women are increasingly becoming more active in the labour market accounting for 45% of workers in the EU (European Commission, 2012) and holding over 40% of jobs worldwide (ILO, 2015).  In Ireland, 55.9% of women are in the workforce compared to 65.7% of men (CSO, 2014).


Prior to the 2008 recession, the rate of employment for women in Ireland had surpassed the target of 60% set out in the Lisbon Strategy. However, the recession resulted in a significant fall in the employment of women in the private sector, mainly in the retail and hospitality sectors (European Parliament, 2015). During this time the gender gap in employment rates narrowed in Ireland but this was as a result of a reduction in employment opportunities for men, and not as a result of more equal access to the labour market (European Parliament, 2015). 


Despite advances in educational attainment, and increased levels of female participation in the workforce, men still greatly outnumber women in senior management and board level positions. Data from Grant Thornton (2014) shows that women only represent 24% of senior roles globally, and women account for just 2.8% of CEO positions in publicly-listed companies (ILO, 2015).


Despite accounting for 52% of professionals in Ireland (CSO, 2013), data shows that females are still grossly under-represented in leadership positions. Research has shown that 80% of workers in administrative and secretarial roles in Ireland are female, while 31% of managers, directors and senior officials in Ireland are female (CSO, 2013).


McKinsey have estimated that there will be a shortage of approximately 40 million highly skilled workers by 2030 ‘The War for Talent’ (McKinsey, 2013).   This is an area of great concern for many organisations and has led to an extremely competitive environment with regard to the recruitment and retention of talent, particularly for senior and specialist roles in knowledge based sectors (Shanks et al, 2013).


Numerous sources have suggested that the equal employment of men and women is key to winning the War for Talent (McKinsey, 2013; Pellegrino et al, 2011; Rahim, 2011).  Research shows that women are increasingly better educated than their male counterparts, and that the female talent pool remains underutilised (Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2013). Providing equal opportunities would allow an organisation to fully utilise the female talent that already exists within their workforce (Hoobler et al, 2011), and significantly increase the total number of highly skilled individuals available for employment (McKinsey, 2013). 


Women are entering the workforce in nearly equal numbers to men, but across the world, female representation falls with seniority. In particular, research has shown that there are significant levels of under representation at board level.


A 2013 report by Grant Thornton found that, despite quotas being in place in some countries, on average only 19% of board members around the world are female. This figure is lower in Ireland, where 17% of board members are female. Since 2003, there has been an incremental average increase of female representation on boards of just 0.6% per year.


If progress continues at current rates, the European Commission (EC) has estimated that it will take 20 years for equal representation on the boards of publicly listed companies. It is for this reason that the EC has been working to introduce legislation that will mandate that females hold 40% of non-executive board positions in publicly listed companies by 2020 (European Commission, 2012; European Commission, 2014; Brassil, 2014).


A survey by the CIPD (2015) reported that an overwhelming 89% of HR managers agreed that gender diversity could improve boardroom effectiveness.  In April 2014, only 10.5% of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland were women, up only 2.1% from 2010, while in the EU, the number of women on boards of publicly listed companies was up 6.7% to reach 18.6% (Murphy & Cullen, 2014).


Examination of the figures at a global level would suggest that the situation is marginally better than in Ireland. Women made up 22.8% of board directors of FTSE 100 companies and 17.4% of the FTSE 250 in October 2014. These figures were an increase from 12.5% and 7.8% respectively in February 2011 (CIPD, 2015).


In 2013, 27 out of 166 (16%) TDs were female. This figure should increase in due course as all Irish political parties must now reach a 30% gender quota for candidates or they will be faced with severe financial penalties and their state funding will be cut (NWS, 2014).


CSO figures show that in the Irish civil service, female employees make up 75% of lower clerical positions, one third of Principal Officer grades and 20.3% of Deputy and Assistant Secretary, which is the second highest grade in the civil service. However, women account for just (12%) 2 out of 17 posts of Secretary General, which is the top post in the civil service (CSO, 2013).


Women account for a growing share of talent emerging from university, thus the exclusion of women from decision making roles represents a democratic deficit (NWS, 2014; OECD, 2012). Globally, women pursue bachelor degrees in greater numbers than men, and are more likely to pursue a Master’s degree (ILO, 2015). Women represent 53.5% of all third level graduates in Ireland (CSO, 2012), and 57% of Master’s degree graduates (ILO, 2015). These figures are comparable to the EU average, where roughly 60% of graduates are women (Grant Thornton, 2013).


Research shows that women are increasingly better educated than their male counterparts, and that the female talent pool remains under-utilised (Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2013). However, the significant progress in educational achievement made by women over the past two decades has not translated into comparable improvements in the workplace (ILO, 2016)

Pay Gap
Pay gap

Under-representation at the management table leads to a pronounced pay gap between male and female employees. A study by the ESRI (2004) found that female graduates earn 11% less per week than males, and less than males at every degree level within three years of graduating. Men are also more likely to receive higher bonuses and fringe benefits in comparison to women.


The pay gap is even wider amongst top earners with senior female managers earning around 21% less than their male counterparts (OECD, 2012). The gender pay gap makes it difficult to recruit women to leadership positions when they know they will probably be paid less than their male co-workers. These figures suggest that subtle yet entrenched forms of gender discrimination are still present in the workplace and have stalled women’s career progression (Dworkin, Ramaswami & Schipani, 2013).


Eurostat statistics indicate that the gender pay gap in Ireland stands at 14.4%, which is lower than the EU average of 16.4% and the UK at 17.7% (ICTU, 2016). While Ireland’s gender pay gap is lower than the EU average, it has been persistent, and increased significantly between 2008 and 2013, when Ireland was experiencing an economic downturn (Eurostat, 2015).


Research by the OECD indicates that the gender pay gap widens with seniority; among the lowest 10% of earners the pay gap stands at 4% this increases to 24.6% in group that falls within the highest 10% of earners (European Parliament, 2015). When analysed by age, research indicates that the pay gap is more significant in the 35 plus category. Women aged under 35 are estimated to earn approximately 90% of the wages of their male equivalents. This falls to 71.5% for women aged between 35 and 44, and to 61.4% for women aged between 55 and 64 (European Parliament, 2015).


The OECD has also identified a cost associated with motherhood in relation to pay. In Ireland, the gender pay gap for women with one child increases by 31 percentage points when compared to women with no children (European Parliament, 2015).


It is important to understand the reasons behind the under representation of women in senior management roles in order to inform theory and to guide practical interventions (Schuh et al. 2014).


The barriers that prevent women from progressing in the organisation can be understood under the “glass ceiling” metaphor. The term the “glass ceiling” emerged in the 1980s when it was noted that even though women have equal rights to men, they are still not reaching the top jobs. Although the “glass ceiling” is subtle and transparent, it is incredibly strong and it prevents women from progressing up the management hierarchy (Ismail & Ibrahaim, 2008).

Gender Stereotyping
Gender stereotyping

Gender stereotyping has been described as the ‘single most important hurdle for women in management’ (Schein, 2001). In some organisations, the ‘Think Manager, Think Male’ (Schein, 1970) mind-set still persists, where the ideal manager is still viewed as someone with stereotypically male characteristics. Evidence shows that what we automatically associate with successful leaders are often stereotypically male attributes such as assertiveness, independence and decisiveness (Ibarra, Ely & Kolb, 2013).


Men and women are thought to differ in terms of “agentic”, or achievement-oriented traits, and in terms of “communal” or social-oriented traits (Bakan, 1966). Men are stereotypically seen as aggressive, decisive, independent and forceful, while women are typically seen as helpful, kind, sympathetic, unselfish and concerned for others (Heilman, 2001). The cultural association of power and authority with masculinity makes it incredibly difficult for women to achieve positions of seniority because their gender identity contradicts that of the masculinity of power (Charles & Davies, 2000).


Gender stereotypes are not just descriptive, but are also prescriptive in influencing opinion of how men and women should and should not behave.  The agentic behaviours for which men are positively valued are not positively valued in women. As female stereotypes do not match with the male leader archetype, women are judged to be unsuitable for senior roles, or they may not even be considered at all (Hoobler, Lemmon & Wayne, 2011).


A woman who is successful in what is traditionally seen as a male role, is considered unlikeable, and perceived to have undesirable attributes relative to her male counterparts. Many women who manage to break through the glass ceiling are punished within the organisation, and by society, for violating gender norms (Hoobler et al, 2011). Women in positions of authority and who excel in traditionally male roles are rated as less likeable by their co-workers (Wirth, 2001).


The imbalance between conventional feminine qualities and the qualities thought necessary for senior management roles puts potential female leaders in a ‘double bind’ (Ibarra, Ely & Kolb, 2013).  Female managers who demonstrate a feminine style to management may be liked but are not respected by their co-workers. They are evaluated as too soft and too emotional (Ibarra, Ely & Kolb, 2013), yet behaviours that evoke self-confidence and assertiveness in men have been rated as abrasive or arrogant in women.


Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, revealed in her biography that she was routinely described as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘bimbo’ (Fiorina cited in Clark, 2006). Marissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo, is often negatively portrayed in the mainstream media for the cost cutting measures that she has undertaken in an attempt to return the organisation to profitability. In 2012, Mayer was openly criticised for returning to work two weeks after the birth of her child. Mayer’s peer Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, has questioned if Mayer’s actions would be the focus of such negative attention if she were male (Sandberg cited in Yarow, 2013).


Long held, traditional gender stereotypes about the social and occupational roles of men and women is a theme that can be seen to create barriers for career advancement for women. Women have traditionally been, and continue to be, assigned the role of the ‘care giver’ and ‘home maker’, while men are assigned the role of the ‘money maker’ and ‘bread winner’ (ILO, 2015). Women, as the ‘caregiver’, are assumed to be; caring, domestically skilled, greater honesty, lesser strength, inability to supervise others, unwilling to travel, unwilling to face risk, more willing to accept lower wages, more interested in working at home (Anker, 1997).

The research indicates that gender stereotypes influence employer perceptions of women’s commitment and capabilities (Hoobler et al, 2014). Hoobler et al (2014) found that managers perceive women as less career motivated and committed which can hinder their attainment of leadership positions (Shin and Bang, 2013).  

Hoobler et al (2009) proposed that the advancement of women is affected by their bosses’ perceptions that women encounter more work-family conflict than men, causing them to be viewed as less committed and having a poorer fit within the organisation and job. It was concluded that “managers’ perceptions of work-family conflict seem to influence their perceptions of fit and performance, with managers appearing to view female employees as having lower commitment and a poorer fit with their organisation and job” (Hoobler et al, 2009: 951).

The assumed characteristics of men include; aggressive, competitive, confident, independent, forceful, less domestically skilled, less willing to accept lower wages, less willing to work at home (IBEC, 2002). These stereotypes shape the roles of men and women from a very early age, and influence the occupational choices they make (EU Commission, 2014).


Prejudices towards women, family, pregnancy and social hierarchy may lead women to being perceived as less committed to their jobs or lacking in the necessary skills for managerial roles (Dworkin, Ramaswami & Schipani, 2013). Biases may be subtle, but can have profound effects on women’s career progression (Hoobler, Lemmon & Wayne, 2014). Because of gender bias and the way in which it influences evaluations in work settings, being competent provides no assurance that women will advance to the same organisational levels as an equivalently performing man (Heilman, 2001).


Recent research has moved away from a focus on the deliberate exclusion of women towards investigating “second-generation bias” as a primary cause for the underrepresentation of women in senior management roles (Ibarra, Ely & Kolb, 2013). Similar to the glass ceiling, second-generation bias creates powerful yet often invisible barriers for women that arise from organisational structure and culture, along with negative attitudes that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage (Dworkin, Ramaswami & Schipani, 2013).


Second generation bias is a complex and often unintentional phenomenon. As an example, it can occur where it is assumed that a female manager would not be interested in a promotion, or in an international assignment, because it will impact on her ability to balance her home and work life.


The family-work conflict bias argues that just being a woman signals to a manager that her family will interfere with her work, regardless of whether or not she actually is married or has children (Hoobler, Lemmon & Wayne, 2011). It was found that when managers judged their employees as having higher family-work conflict, they were rated as a poor fit with their company. They also had lower performance evaluations and were seen as less promotable by their managers. Hoobler, Lemmon & Wayne (2014) controversially ask whether women should continue to use family-work policies offered by their employer. When women bring their children to work childcare facilities, for example, they are making their role as mothers more salient to their managers. Family-friendly benefits may in fact stigmatise women as in need of ‘special accommodations’ and this could lead women to be perceived as less committed workers.


Studies have found that visibly pregnant managers are rated as being less committed to their jobs, less dependable and less authoritative (Correll, Benard & Paik, 2007). Mothers are also held to stricter employment standards than fathers. A study by Fuegen, Biernat, Haines & Deaux (2004) found that in general, parents were judged as being less assertive and goal-driven than non-parents. It was also found that fathers were held to more lenient standards than mothers. Mothers that worked were judged to be violating the norms of the caretaker role, but employed fathers were said to embody the provider or ‘breadwinner’ role. Being a good father is not seen as incompatible with being a good worker.


Closely related to the theory of unconscious bias is Benevolent Sexism; the idea that women are in need of special consideration (King et al, 2012). Benevolent sexism can severely limit the opportunities that are made available to women, and can have a detrimental effect on career progression (Hoobler et al, 2011).


The type of discrimination that arises through benevolent sexism is difficult to identify, and so subtle that women in the organisation may not even notice it (Meyerson & Fletcher, 2000 cited in Hoobler at al, 2011). Organisational focus should centre on awareness and education. It is imperative that all employees understand how their own unconscious bias or benevolent sexism can limit the career progression of female employees (Hoobler et al, 2011).

Occupational Segregation
Occupational segregation

Another theoretical perspective that is frequent in the literature is occupational segregation (IBEC, 2002). Okamoto and England (1999) report that on average, women work in occupations that are 65% female, while men work in occupations that are 27% female. Occupational socialisation sees women apply and prepare for jobs along gender lines. Women may limit their applications or even lower their expectation for what they consider to be “female” positions. Once women begin their professional careers, many move into support or non-strategic positions such as Human Resources or other support areas at junior management level, rather than into line manager functions that lead to positions of leadership (IBEC, 2002). O’Connor (1998) notes that even in sectors where women are the majority, such as teaching and nursing jobs, men are more likely to be promoted to senior roles.  However, Okamoto & England (1999) report that the difference in women’s occupational aspirations and expectations explained only 4% to 8% of the occupational segregation gap. This suggests that the reason for the lack of women in management is explained only partly as a choice women make to avoid senior management jobs.


While levels of occupational segregation decreased in the 1970s, it is still prevalent in certain fields (Okamoto & England, 1999), and results in women being side-lined into particular careers that allow them to balance their home and professional lives. The most common are administrative or service orientated roles that offer lower pay and lower opportunities for advancement. On International Women’s Day 2015, the European Union (EU) reported that women are grossly overrepresented in clerical work across the member states. Ireland has one of the highest proportions of female clerical workers in the EU, at 80%, compared to 69% in the United Kingdom and an average of 67% across the EU (Eurostat, 2015)


Occupational segregation describes how women are represented in occupational categories in comparison to men (Okamoto and England, 1999). Women are predominantly found in clerical, semi-skilled factory and domestic work (IBEC, 2002). They represent a high number of specific occupations such as teachers, health and related workers, and social and related occupations (Russell et al, 2009). Despite the increase in female labour force participation, horizontal and vertical segregation of the labour market on a gender basis still exists (Ackah et al, 1999).


Horizontal segregation relates to how women are over represented in some occupations and underrepresented in others (Ackah et al, 1999). Vertical segregation relates to how women are extremely underrepresented at senior levels i.e. the ‘glass ceiling’, even in occupations where they represent the majority of workers (Ackah et al, 1999).

The literature suggests supply and demand factors as explanations for occupational segregation (Reskin, 1993, Okamoto and England, 1999). Demand- side factors include employer preferences for hiring men over women for particular jobs (IBEC, 2002). Employer preferences significantly contribute to occupational segregation (Reskin, 1993). Anker (1997) draws on human capital theory which suggests that women are considered to be higher costs workers, as they are believed to have higher absenteeism rates, turnover rates and be late to work more frequently, probably because of family responsibilities.

These incur high indirect costs for the employer which affects the type of jobs offered to women by employers i.e. lower paid, lower level, part-time jobs and inhibits their achievement of leadership positions (Anker, 1997). IBEC (2002) notes that supply-side factors focus on why women ‘prefer‘ particular types of occupations.

Women’s choice of occupation is influenced by their expectations of family responsibilities. According to Reskin (1993), neoclassical economists understand women’s expectations of family obligations as a reason for occupational segregation. These family responsibilities hinder women from gaining the necessary experience for leadership positions as they leave their job early or temporarily (Anker, 1997). This is reinforced by labour market structures which penalise part-time work and career breaks (IBEC, 2002).  However Anker (1997) argues that demand-side explanations of occupational segregation are stronger, with supply-side explanations having several limitations.

However considerable differences still exist in the quality and nature of education and training for women (ILO, 2001). The literature indicates that women are still being prompted into particular types of study which lead to certain types of careers (ILO, 2004). For instance, while women were found to have 40% of the world’s jobs these were traditional “female professions” such as teaching, nursing and administration (Kirton & Greene, 2010).

In their study, Russell et al (2009) found that in Ireland women represent 78.8% of health and related workers, 73.1% of social workers and related occupations and 71.1% of teachers. The OECD (2014) average for the highest percentage of qualifications awarded to women were in the areas of education (76.13%), health and welfare (74.1%), humanities and arts (65.21%) and life sciences (63.15%).

The lowest percentage of qualifications awarded to women were in the areas of computing (19.21%), engineering, manufacturing and construction (26.34%) and sciences (40.83%). These differences pose significant obstacles for women during recruitment and later when trying to compete with men for advancement (ILO, 2001). While the literature shows that today women have much better opportunities and access to education, achieving equal power in organisations still remains a challenge (Allbright, 2014).

While education is important for women, it needs to be of a high quality and include equality issues rather than just reproducing high rates of education for women (Allbright, 2014). Women need support and encouragement, as well as equal educational opportunities, in order to break through the “glass ceiling” (ILO, 2001).

Ireland has the second highest rate of low paid employment in the developed world, after the USA. Low paid employment has been defined by the OECD as those which earn less than two thirds of the median income. The ratio of low paid employment in Ireland is 22%, compared to 25% in the USA, 21% in the UK, and 10%  in Switzerland (OECD, 2013, as cited in European Parliament, 2015). Research indicates that it is women who hold the majority of low paid jobs. In Ireland, 65% of individuals earning the National Minimum Wage are female (ICTU, 2016).

Gender Roles - Work/Life Balancs
Gender roles - work/life balance

The conflict between work and family responsibilities is often cited as a source of women’s underrepresentation in top leadership positions. Family responsibilities continue to be unequally shared (European Commission, 2013).


Many women are forced to choose between a career or family (Harvard Business Review, 2014 and Shin and Bang, 2013). The European Commission (2013) revealed that only 64.7% of women with children had careers compared to 89.7% of men with children. This can make it difficult for women to attain leadership positions. Pew’s (2009) survey found that more than a quarter of women felt that family responsibilities contributed to their lack of advancement to a senior management position. A study in the US found that of married senior managers, two thirds of men had children while only one third of women had children (Sandberg, 2010). The lack of affordable, adequate and consistent childcare, adds to the demands that women face (IBEC, 2002, Johns, 2013). The lack of flexible/part-time jobs for leadership positions, also contributes to the work-family conflict (ILO, 2015).

Many women are forced to take time out or give up full time work (ILO, 2004). In the EU, 32.6% of women work part-time compared to only 9.5% of men (European Commission, 2013). Women who return after taking time off find it difficult to catch up and “gain parity, in promotion and earning power with their male counterparts” (Johns, 2013: 5). Russell at al (2009), found that after returning to work, 34.4% of women experienced downward mobility and only 16% experienced upward mobility. Working part time has a negative impact on career advancement, training and development opportunities, unemployment benefits and pensions rights (European Commission, 2013).

A report by the National Women’s Council of Ireland found that women are still responsible for over 80% of the household tasks and family life, such as childcare, cooking and cleaning (NWCI, 2009). The gender division of labour frees men from childcare and domestic responsibilities in the home (Ismail & Ibrahaim, 2008). Work-life balance can act as a major barrier in the career progression of female senior managers.


Drew and Murtagh (2005) found that female managers reported that the greatest obstacles in achieving a work-life balance was the ‘long-hours’ cultures of management and that the flexible options offered by their company (such as flexitime and working from home) were simply incompatible with retaining a senior management position. Intense job demands make it hard for employees, both male and female, to take advantage of work-life policies (Blair-Loy & Wharton, 2004)


While an organisation may have an excellent range of work-life balance policies, organisational culture can run counter to the achievement of work-life balance at senior management level (Monks, 2007). The language an organisation uses for flexible working arrangements can affect how employees perceive them.


The assumption of “family-friendly” work arrangements can lead to resentment among employees who are not eligible to avail of such arrangements, especially when they find themselves covering for colleagues who are using the flexible work policies (Drew & Murtagh, 2005; Monks, 2007).  CIPD research (2015) notes that HR managers have listed the development of family-friendly policies that are available for both women and men employees as a top priority.


 It is accepted that balancing the role of parent and employee can be exhausting (Leff & Ward, 2001). To this end, 53% of Irish companies, and 74% of European companies offer a family friendly working solution (Grant Thornton, 2013) to help employees manage their responsibilities. However, many women do not wish to explore these options with their managers for fear of being excluded as a potential candidate for any future promotional opportunities (Blair-Loy, 2004). There is a need for organisations to address the informal ways in which they communicate with their employees about work-home balance (Liff & Ward, 2001)


It is important to recognise that the provision of flexible working arrangements is not a quick fix solution to the glass ceiling. Flexible working arrangements do not always lead to increased recruitment or retention of women in top jobs. It has been suggested that flexible working is a ‘red herring’, as many women are willing to work long hours in pursuit of success when they are running their own business. Over the past 20 years, women have been starting their own businesses at a higher rate than men. America has seen a dramatic increase in the number of organisations that are privately held and owned by women (Winn, 2004, cited in Hoobler et al, 2011); there are currently 9.1 million organisations, generating $1.4 trillion in sales (NAWBO, 2015).

Corporate Culture
Corporate culture

A gender discrimination case against world-renowned venture capitalist firm, Kleiner, described an aggressive organisational culture that shocked many. With three Ivy League degrees and substantial executive experience, Ellen Pao claimed that she was excluded from opportunities to progress within the organisation because of her gender. While Ms. Pao was not successful in her lawsuit, the case brought to the fore the challenges that many women face in male dominated industries, and has been heralded as a landmark case for gender equality in Silicon Valley (Manjoo, 2015)


Another reason for women’s underrepresentation at senior management level is due to organisations having unfair and unclear selection processes for senior positions. The culture of senior management is masculine, often revolving around rugby and golf outings, and conversations about technology and sport. Oftentimes it is through these informal “old boys’ networks” where deals are made and promotions secured (Charles & Davies, 2000). The similarity-attraction theory suggests that individuals are attracted to and prefer those they consider similar to themselves (Byrne, 1971).


Managers often choose people who are socially similar to them to advance in the organisation. Because most managers are men, they often support the advancement of other men, leaving women at a disadvantage (Tharenous, 2001). One study suggested that men, as the dominant group in the workplace, may want to maintain dominance by excluding women from informal interactions of networking and mentoring (Linehan & Scullion 2002 as cited in Dworkin, Ramaswami & Scipani, 2013).


Opting out refers to a conscious decision by women to not pursue a leadership career. At mid-career level, the aspirations of women change, their careers stall or stop completely. It was previously assumed that women were opting out because they are not genetically predisposed to leadership roles (Hoobler et al, 2011), and that the time and commitment that a leadership position requires were simply not compatible with family life.


However, 60% of women work well beyond the birth of their first child (Stone, 2013), and studies have shown that many women who appear to ‘opt out’ of one organisation, can go on to be extremely successful in an equally demanding role, in a different organisation (Marshall. 1995, cited in Liff and Ward, 2001).


It has been suggested that women are disillusioned with the organisational culture that is prevalent in many traditionally male dominated industries. For many women, the culture at the leadership levels simply does not attract them (CIPD, 2007). Women prefer to work in a culture that values contribution as opposed to long hours, and working at a senior level in a male dominated environment requires the learning of new behaviours that many women feel comprised their personal values (Tingley & Robert, 1999, cited in CIPD, 2007). Women may not be rejecting managerial level work, but simply the manner in which it is traditionally organised.

Female Role Models
Female role models

Aspiring leaders need role models whose style and behaviour they can compare their own standards against. Fewer female leaders means fewer role models for younger women and this can discourage them from applying for senior positions (Ibarra, Ely & Kolb, 2013). It has been found that women may need more encouragement than men to try for higher level positions or avoid staying at the same level (Tharenous, 2001).


A theoretical perspective by Hoobler, Lemmon & Wayne (2014) sought to explain why women “opt out” of senior management positions or remain in junior manager roles. They found that junior employees ‘gender was related to the degree to which they were perceived as career motivated by their managers. Career motivation was related to the amount of organisational development that they received, and this affected the degree to which they aspired to pursue senior management positions. The authors report that being a female was associated with managers’ assessments of lower career motivation, even when aspects such as education level, performance and length of service were controlled.


Career motivation was linked to junior employees’ reports of having received opportunities for challenging work assignments, training and encouragement from their managers. Thus, when subordinates reported that they had received more training and development and career encouragement from their managers, they also reported higher managerial aspirations.


Organisational investment in employee development boosts employees’ own perception of their career potential. Similarly, Tharenou (2001) suggests that women may need more encouragement than men in trying to either advance to higher levels or to avoid staying at the same level, because they face greater barriers at senior level than men do. The ‘opt-out’ perspective sees women leaving management positions due to them not being able to manage senior leadership roles. However, social role theory, the idea that men and women take on different roles as a result of the expectation that society places on them, argues that women’s lack of presence in senior management is partly explained by women not getting enough opportunities and encouragement, which are crucial for advancement to leadership roles.

Mentors and Sponsors
Mentors and sponsors

Scholars have suggested that while skills and education can help a person to gain access to the lower levels of management, social factors play a larger part in gaining access to the higher levels. (Adler & Izraeli, 1994; Ibarra & Smith-Lovin, 1997; Powell, 1999; all cited in Tharenou, 2001). Many women lack a mentor or sponsor, who is willing to promote their abilities to decision makers in the organisation.


It can be difficult for a female to find a suitable mentor or sponsor in an organisation where males hold the majority of leadership roles. In industries such as banking, finance and technology, women who are at entry-level management do not have any female role models to act as mentors or sponsors within the organisation (Hoobler et al, 2011).  While there are many benefits to cross gender relationships; for example a male mentor can help a female colleague to fully understand the complexities of a male dominated organisation, there are also problems associated with a male/female partnership. In his 1988 article, Noe argues that men are generally more comfortable engaging with other men for reasons related to norms in cross gender relationships. Often a close partnership of a male and female can draw unwarranted attention and speculation about the nature of the relationship (Noe, 1988).  Even if a woman has developed connections within an organisation, research suggests that she will be less comfortable trying to exert influence over this network for personal gain (Liff & Ward, 2001).


Hoobler et al (2011), suggest a possible reason for the unequal provision of development opportunities may be due to the lack of female mentors. Tolar (2012) notes that mentoring is crucially important for the progression of women in their career. A survey conducted by Reich (1986), found that women who took part in mentorships expressed high levels of self-confidence, greater awareness of and use of their capabilities and skills. However, Ibarra et al (2010), revealed that even with a mentor 72% of men had received one or more development opportunities compared to 65% of women.


Men have better access to senior mentors (Hoobler et al, 2011) and research has shown that the more senior the mentor, the quicker the individual’s career development (Ibarra et al, 2010). In 2008, 15% more promotions were given to men than women. The literature highlights the crucial role of mentors for both men and women in obtaining the development experiences and skills required for senior management roles.


Access to stretch opportunities are crucial in terms of employee development and success; generally resulting in increased visibility within the organisation and increased self confidence in the employee (Hoobler et al, 2011). Research shows that women are less likely to be offered challenging opportunities.


As part of a longitudinal study into the retention and advancement of high potential employees, Catalyst examined the assignments that were given to 1,660 business school graduates. The study found that men were more likely to be awarded projects that would lead to attention from the C-Suite executives (33% of men versus 25% of women), and more likely to be awarded projects with a budget in excess of $10 million (Silva et al, 2012). Organisations often view the expense associated with development of female employees as a cost, and of male employees as an investment. Women are perceived to be a greater flight risk as compared to men, and are seen as less likely to progress to a position of authority within the organisation, resulting in a hesitancy to fully invest in their development (Hoobler et al, 2011).


Without access to appropriate development opportunities women are at a disadvantage when competing for promotion against male colleagues (Hoobler et al, 2011). Dragoni et al (2009) notes that numerous organisations are now actively using job assignments to train their managers for advancement for leadership positions. However, the ERSI (2005) found that men were more likely than women to have received development opportunities i.e. employer sponsored training, as well as more likely to have received a promotion with their current employer.


According to Ackah et al (1999), women were more likely than men to have spent up to six years in their current positions, as well as feeling that their promotion aspects were poor (42.4%) compared to men (34.1%). The Harvard Business Review (2014) revealed that men were significantly more content (50%) than women (41%) with their opportunities for career growth and development. Similarly, Broadbridge (2008) found that the ‘lack of training provision’ as well as ‘limited opportunities’ i.e. developmental assignments, were experienced by almost half of female participants as problems in their career.

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