Women in Leadership: Barriers and Solutions

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About this sample


Words: 2910 |

Page: 1|

15 min read

Published: Mar 28, 2019

Words: 2910|Page: 1|15 min read

Published: Mar 28, 2019

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Barriers of Women in Leadership
  3. Glass ceiling and the glass labyrinth
    Human capital differences
    Gender differences
  4. Motives for changing gender imbalance in the current environment
  5. Conclusion


From the latter part of the 20th century and especially since the advent of the 21st century, modernization, globalization, and concomitant legislation for human rights and equity has opened up more space for women in leadership, though the results have been limited in some cases. In 2002, data circulated by the US Bureau of Labour revealed that of all the executive, administrative and managerial positions held in the US, female leaders held about 46% and this was an indication of women’s zest for amassing required management or line experience that was initially thought to be missing or lacking.

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Broadbridge and Simpson (2011) assert that the extensive research carried out in the last decades in the area of leadership and gender, show that challenges in the progression of women to more seniour positions, are still present and need to be further analysed. In many cases due to equal rights legislation, the problem of gender is often assumed to have been solved. The reality however is that there are still barriers for women such as the glass ceiling or the ‘hidden dimensions of power’ (Broadbridge et al., 2011:477) that undermine female careers. Eagly and Carli (2007) claim women are not well represented in managerial positions, however instead of discussing negative barriers like the glass ceiling, they prefer to introduce the metaphor of the labyrinth. The shift of paradigm emphasises that ‘for women who aspire to top leadership, routes exist but are full of twists and turns, both unexpected and expected’.

Barriers of Women in Leadership

Glass ceiling and the glass labyrinth

The glass ceiling is a term that denotes the challenges that women face when trying to ascend to the higher echelons of leadership. It means that women can ascend the leadership ladder up to a predetermined point, at which time they are locked out of most leadership roles. However, Eagly et al. (2011) contest the term with the argument that it implies that women do not face any challenges in the workplace until they reach a certain hierarchy where they face challenges advancing further. Eagly et al. (2011) argue that this is not true because women face workplace challenges from the time that they enter the workplace. A study of workplace harassment and bullying revealed that women are more likely to be harassed at work than their male counterparts. Similarly, women are more likely to lose their jobs for private issues such as starting a family.

Accordingly, these issues lay the groundwork for excluding women from top leadership positions. Northouse (2018) claims that the leadership gap is attributable to three main factors namely differences in human capital, gender differences, and prejudice.

Human capital differences

Northouse (2018) attributes the leadership gap to differences in the human capital claim that women are less educated, have less experience, and train less.

The argument that women are less educated than men differs from country to country. In countries with a culture of gender egalitarianism, women are just as likely as men to have a higher education. However, the opposite is true for countries where there is less gender egalitarianism such as Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in general. Considering the paternalistic culture of the Middle East, women are relegated to domestic roles where they are unlikely to develop the skillset that is necessary for formal leadership. Nonetheless, evidence from gender-egalitarian countries shows that even if women have as much education or even more education than men, they are still left out of top leadership. For example, despite women having the same qualifications as men, they are underrepresented in top leadership (Northouse, 2018). This begs the question of whether women are perceived as bad leaders who, despite being educated, cannot lead. However, this would lead to another question of whether education is necessary for great leadership. There are leaders especially in theocracies like Saudi Arabia, whose bloodline and not education, is the prerequisite for being a leader. Evidently, education does not justify the leadership gap.

The other argument is that women have less training and experience to be eligible for leadership positions. This postulation might present some truth. Despite being as or more educated than men, women are likely to lose time in their careers during life transitions like when they have children. The domestic duty of raising a child falls more aggressively on the woman than a man. Physiologically, women are more likely to lose time off during pregnancy and after having a child because they are the primary caregivers for the child. Meanwhile, the men have this time to build an advantage over the women. The more children that one has during their career, the more they fall behind those that have not had any children, or the males who do not play an active role in parenting.

Gender differences

Gender differences are consistently cited in leadership literature as an antecedent for the leadership gap. Some studies argue that women are more nurturing and participatory leaders, while men are more task-oriented and are better at taking risks. Northouse (2018) argues though, that the studies which show this difference were heavily skewed by the homogeneity of the samples that they used.

Additionally, Moss-Racusin & Rudman (2010) argue that women are less likely to promote themselves and negotiating their way to leadership positions. Ascending to positions of leadership is demanding for individuals. There is no definite blueprint for ascending the leadership ladder so someone must be aggressive enough to explore what the path is, and promote their capabilities in a manner that improves their chances of rising higher. When men practice this behaviour, they are perceived as driven and ambitious (Moss-Racusin & Rudman, 2010). However, the same behaviour from women attracts scorn and an attack on their character. Ambitious women are perceived as aggressive and masculine, so they are perceived as a threat by the very social circles which they must navigate to ascend the leadership ladder. Take the example of the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. The firm argued that the plaintiff failed to ascend to a partnership position not because she was incompetent, but because they believed that she was not behaving in a feminine manner. The firm believed that she was acting like a man, and was advised to begin acting more feminine to improve her chances of becoming a partner. Naturally, the firm lost the discrimination lawsuit. It is evident therefore, that women are perceived as bad leaders if they fail to adhere to the social roles that are attached to their gender. To refrain from incurring such social backlash, Moss-Racusin & Rudman (2010) argue that women forego higher leadership roles.

Lyngsie & Foss (2017) argue that when in charge of large groups, women are worse leaders. Inferably, this performance deficit is based on the stereotypes that people expect women to fulfil. A large group is almost always going to be diverse. For example, a multinational firm cannot just hire females only. This means that women are faced with groups that contain males and females from multiple cultures. Klenka (2017) proffers that people prefer when women are inclusive, humble, and practice servant leadership. This comes from a psychological phenomenon that is known as transference. People associate women with motherhood because this is usually the first and most influential female association that they make. Mothers are typically mild and nurturing so when people are under the rule of a female leader, they expect that leader to behave in the same manner as their mother or mother figure. If they do not, people judge them as poorly as they would judge a mother who has failed to meet the stereotypes of motherhood. This is the reason why firms that are highly competitive and high risk, may prefer male leaders to female leaders. They expect that women are too docile to handle the pressure of leadership, and would make bad leaders.


Prejudice is a form of bigotry that manifests in someone having an irrational disrespect or hatred for people from another demographic. The prejudice against women in leadership roles is rooted in the historical gender roles that expect women to be domestic caregivers and followers while men are the leaders. When women venture into leadership roles, men might perceive this as an affront to their territory, especially in countries that have little or no gender egalitarianism. Accordingly, the followers of a female leader are likely to perceive them poorly whether or not they perform as well or better than a male. This might result in a biased judgment of females as bad leaders despite there being no foundation for this argument.

The homosocial nature of humans is also a source of prejudice in favour of or against female leaders. Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner (2006) argue that people prefer others like them, to those that are not like them. This perception is based on an irrational tendency for self-preservation. Accordingly, the male followers may favour male leaders while the opposite is true for females. The paternalistic social construct has exposed females to male leadership for so long that women are unlikely to resist male leadership as much as males are likely to resist female leadership. This is especially common in areas without gender egalitarianism, such as the Middle East. One example is the assassination of the Pakistani presidential candidate, Benazir Bhutto, for one, among other reasons, being a woman that was running for the presidency. Islamic culture perceives women as subservient to men and therefore, has less tolerance for female leadership.

Motives for changing gender imbalance in the current environment

Discussed below, are the different motives for changing the gender imbalance that females face in the current leadership environment.

Women are more likely to be equitable leaders according to Klenke (2017). As mentioned prior, inequitable leadership causes dissatisfaction among the followers, so it is synonymous with bad leadership. Women’s affinity towards justice and fairness is likely to improve the output of the followers towards the mission. One of the examples of women being more equitable is the leadership of Indra Noori. Under her tenure, the company became more socially responsible and managed its waste better. Previously, PepsiCo was cited as a reckless polluter and a health risk, because it at once even sold drinks that contained dangerous amounts of pesticides. The company also used to sell diabetes-inducing foods without much consideration for the consumers. PepsiCo would also waste resources in the name of profit. At one time, it was using so much water in India even though there was an ongoing drought, despite producing a discretionary product. When Indra Noori took over, the company categorized its products into what it called 'Good for You' which was a group of foods and beverages that retained or promoted the consumers' health. The products that were labelled 'Fun for You' are the ones that carry a high risk of diabetes. The products that were perceived as ' Better for You' were neutral and stuck in the middle between the previous two categories.

Women are also more likely to be ethical leaders than men are, because of their higher emotional intelligence (Cliffe, 2011). Considering that women are more likely to lead through relationship building rather than with tunnel vision ambition, they are more open to being ethical than men are. To refer back to Hofstede's culture model, ambitious cultures that focus on achievement and personal gratification are considered to be masculine. Cultures that focus on group utility and social wellbeing are called feminine. This extends into leadership. The fact that women are more oriented towards overall social wellbeing rather than personal achievement, aligns with the utilitarian ethical perspective. To exemplify from a political perspective, most of the leaders that have spearheaded the worst human rights atrocities of those that were supposed to be their followers, were male. Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong Un, and King Leopold all committed several atrocities. However, this does not mean that all female leaders are ethical by default. Even if there are barely any Middle Eastern female leaders to exemplify, Aung San Su Kyi is a great external example. Voted and sanitized under the belief that she was a freedom fighter and a female who would be ethical, time has proven the opposite. There is a genocide against the Burmese Muslim minority of Rohingya people that are happening under the watch, and she denies it. This was not the case before she was a leader. Before she was the head of state, she was a freedom fighter who endured a lot of harassment from the military but remained an outspoken freedom fighter who even won a Nobel Prize for Peace. Right now, she is an accomplice in some of the worst human rights crimes in modern history and is defending the military that is performing them. Therefore, women can also be bad and unethical leaders.

Klenke (2017) argues that women are better at mentoring than men are. The relationship-oriented leadership of the women is likely to make then inclusive, calmer, and more communicative leaders. Resultantly, they are better at nurturing because mentorship requires extensive nurturing and communication. Klenke (2017) posits that women received better mentorship outcomes. Noteworthy though, this assertion might be skewed by the assumption that all male leaders have relatively aggressive personalities that are destructive to mentoring. Furthermore, the argument that women are better mentors than men ignores the cultural differences that are likely to come with leadership. A female leader from acculture with a high-power distance score and high gender egalitarianism score, might be less nurturing than a male leader from a culture with low power distance and high collectivism or high human orientation.

Women are less risk-tolerant than men. If the firm operates in an industry that is in the maturity stage of its lifecycle, risk-tolerance is unnecessary and might even be detrimental to the firm. The reckless risk-taking behaviour could cause losses such as the development of unnecessary new products. In such an industry, female risk-aversion might be a welcome trait. Alternatively, a firm that is operating in a highly competitive industry in its growth phase might benefit from the risk-taking behaviour of the male leaders. The environmental uncertainty in such an environment demands bold risk-taking, but it should not be extreme. If the leader in such an environment is averse to risk, their firm might go obsolete. This same reasoning applies to firms that are in the decline stages of their lifecycle and need to reinvent themselves. In the example of Nokia, the mobile industry was approaching a decline when Apple took the risk to introduce an unprecedented type of mobile device. Nokia's dismissal of Apple's iPhone as gimmicky contributed to the company's downfall. Rather than deploying its extensive experience and resources to defend its territory by introducing a smartphone if its own, it trusted its brand loyalty to protect it. The result was the company becoming obsolete while newcomers like Samsung and Chinese budget smartphones responded to Apple's new product. Had Nokia taken that risk, it might still have been the market leader in the smartphone industry. However, its CEO was male, and this proves that gender and risk-tolerance are not invariably related.


A female's ability to lead is often questioned in terms of how well she can handle leadership, compared to men. There is a plethora of literature on leadership that describes how males tend to rate themselves as better leaders than females, based on their perception of leadership. Often, women find themselves caught up in stereotypes by acting different than prevailing female values in an attempt to comply with the male definition of leadership, charisma! Much of the literature suggests that for decades more females tend to underrate their leadership abilities and competencies than men in similar roles but there seems to be a growing perception among today's women that they are capable, that tends to move away from orthodox thinking of women as subordinate parties in leadership in both the public and private sectors. Most leadership research prior to the 1980s was carried out by men and dealt almost exclusively with male leaders, variously defined as supervisors, managers, administrators, or commanders.

Doubts about women’s leadership skills have been attributed to their feminine traits. This has been linked to perceptions of incompetence and a devaluation or exploitation of women’s labour. Given the prejudice men harbour about women in authority, men may work well with female subordinates but become uncomfortable when working with female peers and superiors, particularly in male dominated work settings. This is because women are viewed as suited to service tasks and subordinate positions which reinforce the impression of nurturance, dependence and lack of leadership ability. Women have to deal with these responses of male peers and subordinates who may not welcome their entry into previously male dominated territory. This may explain why some women do not aspire for certain powerful positions and even if they do aspire, end up adopting male attributes and suppressing aspects of femininities. What becomes evident is that women’s presence in the world of men is conditional on their willingness to modify their behaviour to become more like men or risk being perceived as more male than men.

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To conclude, in all areas of society, both men and women should be brought together in equal measure. Women empowerment is very important for the bright future of country. Women need a clean and suitable environment so that they can take their own decision in every field even if it is for themselves, country, family or society. It is a part of women's involvement in the population of the whole country and all round development of women and children they need freedom in all areas.

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Leadership Experiences of Women Executives. (2022, December 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
“Leadership Experiences of Women Executives.” GradesFixer, 03 Dec. 2022,
Leadership Experiences of Women Executives. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 Jul. 2024].
Leadership Experiences of Women Executives [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Dec 03 [cited 2024 Jul 14]. Available from:
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