Overcoming Obstacles in Leadership Article

Role of Women in Leadership

Leadership is a role that has been male-dominated for centuries, as a result of the patriarchal society in which the West has been situated. However, with the advent of the women’s movement in the 19th century, the role of women in leadership began to expand. Women abolitionists came to the fore, women suffragists emerged, women’s rights advocates surfaced and finally the Feminist Movement under leaders like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem took shape. However, the idea of women in leadership positions does not have to arbitrarily exist within the confines of a revolutionary movement. Women can, have and do lead in areas and arenas that are completely separate or detached from political discourse, ideology or agenda. For instance, there are female CEOs, female political representatives, female leaders in the financial sector (Janet Yellen at the New York Fed and Christine Lagarde at the IMF), and leaders of nations (Margaret Thacker, for instance, in the UK — or Hillary Clinton in the U.S., who is running for the position of Democratic nominee). In short, the role of women in leadership has developed over the years to be more inclusive and expansive, so that women are serving as leaders in various sectors around the world. However, the issue is not without its mixture of positive and negative aspects regarding workplace, society and workers — and there is still much work that can be done in the West to make the playing field more equal. Hate speech, misogyny and glass ceilings still exist and are a problem for women who seek leadership positions, as scholars note (Herrback, Mignonac, 2012). This paper will discuss the social issue of the role of women in leadership, as it impacts the workplace environment and society and show the negative and positive aspects of this issue as it relates to workers, workplace environment and society as well as how negative issues can be addressed.

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One of the negative issues related to the topic of women in leadership positions is the notion of gender role type (Schneidhofer, Schiffinger et al., 2010). Gender role type refers to a situation in which a woman is essentially typecast within a certain role because of her gender and no matter what she does she cannot maneuver her way out of it. This is a real problem for women who want to navigate their way up the corporate ladder and take leadership positions in circles that have been traditionally held by men. For instance, in the political realm in the U.S., American has never had a female president. Britain has had a female Prime Minister. Germany has Angela Merkel. Israel has had one. But the U.S. has never had a female president or even a female vice president. That may change, however, as Hillary Clinton positions to run for this position. Yet, there is some verbiage among the opposition that can be equated to misogynistic speech or even as hate speech. For instance, the candidacy of Donald Trump is well-known for containing verbiage that is perceived as being degrading towards women. This would fit into the category of gender role type negativity that Schneidhofer, Schiffinger et al. (2010) identify in their study. It is not just a workplace phenomenon or one that is restricted to the workplace environment. This is a social issue, as it is political in spectrum and politics is built upon, impacted by and impactful of society. Issues that affect women in politics, affect women in social sectors as well, as Garcia (1989) has indicated in her study of Chicana Feminist political advocates, whose work impacted both family-social life as well as the political spectrum specifically because of the interrelatedness of the two.

However, there are other negative aspects regarding women in leadership that should be dealt with. Evers and Sieverdling (2014) have shown in their analysis of the wage earnings between men and women that qualified women are still earning less than their male counterparts in leadership positions. What the researchers have found is that men in leadership roles have a higher “human capital” than women, when it comes to being hired to lead an organization or to serves as the face of a Board. Men, in other words, suggest an image of power and responsibility while women suggest something else, something more matronly and less stewardly — as far as popular cultural norms are concerned. This is a phenomenon that is deeply embedded within Western culture and that impacts the workplace environment and workers in a negative way. It is a type of gender discrimination that is founded on social bias — researchers call it “discontinuous work history” as though gaps in the working experience and working years of a woman’s resume were an indication of her human capital or of an inability to act as a steward of an organization, group or committee (Evers, Sieverding, 2014, p. 93).

Cox and Harquail (2015) support the finding of Evers and Sieverding (2014) by indicating that women in leadership positions do not necessarily experience fewer promotions or than their male coworkers/counterparts, but that they will typically end up on a lower pay scale than their male counterpart. The issue of equal pay for women leaders is one that is still not being addressed adequately, and even Hollywood actresses complain vocally of this phenomenon year in and year out. In other words, this is again is an issue that has deep social roots, which go all the way back to the fact that women have had to climb and overcome various social obstacles in order just to be able to maintain leadership positions in work, politics and society. So while gender discrimination continues to obviously take place, the fact remains that women have come a long way in the world and this should be taken at least as a positive sign of things to come.

Still, social controls could be implemented to help even the playing field for women in leadership positions. Social controls that could be implemented include education practices, organizational policies, and social change. The women’s movement has already been responsible for and successful at effecting social change. Steinem’s Ms. Magazine, for instance, has for years put women’s issues at the front and center of the national consciousness. Indeed, Steinem has been an icon for feminism and for women for decades, representing herself not only as a leader of the movement but also as a style icon that hundreds of thousands of young women in the 1970s looked up to for social cues, including how to dress, act, speak and think.

In her famous photograph, taken by Yale Joel, Steinem sits cross-legged holding a placard that reads, “We Shall Overcome” and the image is one that suggests just how powerful women were thanks to such leaders as Steinem, who challenged the social consciousness through evocative and provocative images such as this one. Her style of fashion and her “chic” militant dress made her appear not only elegant and enlightened but also ready to fight on the streets for women’s rights. This “look” and her work behind the scenes brought about a change in the way the public was educated about what women could do in the workplace and in the real world. This was an example of social education that set the stage for changes in organizational policies around the world and that helped women to achieve success in breaking through the glass ceiling. It was a positive step for Feminism in general but in particular for women in the workplace as it solidified the movement and united women in a campaign for equal rights. Thus, while there is still some ground to make up in terms of equal pay and eliminating gender role typecasting, the ground that has been gained is thanks to women leaders like Steinem who have used the gifts and qualities they have to appeal directly to the social consciousness via popular social media — and Ms. Magazine is just such a medium still running today.

Another way in which women’s role in leadership could be facilitated and bolstered is in education within the workplace culture. Leadership styles, for instance, are effective tools for implementing strategies that help followers to align behind a leader. Women leaders have been criticized in the past for “drifting from their original mission,” as researcher Folta et al. (2012, p. 383) have noted in their study of women in leadership positions. One way for women to take the initiative in correcting this perception of their leadership abilities is to engage in a form of leadership style that is more conducive to the aims that organizations want as well as to the projection that women leaders want to give. Democratic leadership style is one such method that could be employed following some education in organizational development classes within the workplace. All members of an organizational would benefit from such an implementation, as it is a team-oriented approach to leadership that draws in an entire community for contributions and ideas that can help make the organization stronger and more efficient. This sort of leadership is one that women in leadership roles could utilize to help strengthen their image and erase the idea that they inevitably “drift” from the core mission, as it would provide focus by engaging all members of a team and requiring a contributive effort from everyone.

By focusing on leadership styles and leadership theories, headway could be made within organizational policies that could help to limit the kind of workplace prejudice and bias that prevents women from attaining equality within leadership positions. One leadership theory that could be utilized in order to pave the way towards equality in the workplace is the “path-goal theory” which gives the leader the ability to properly and adequately organize a workplace environment by establishing the goals of the operation and making them clear for all members of the team; this assists members in their task of working around barriers and reaching their aims over time (Northouse, 2016). It is a theory of leadership that could help women in leadership roles to solidify their positions as functioning leaders who efficiently manage organizations and . It could help them, too, to eliminate the stigma of being “wanderers” from the aim of the organization. Adhering to a focused and efficient theory of leadership is one way for women to firmly maintain their place within the workplace and the organizational environment.

However, corporations also have a responsibility to see that women are not being discriminated against in the workplace. Businesses should adopt a strategy of CSR — corporate social responsibility — that ensures that they are treating women fairly and providing them the means and remuneration proper to their position as leaders within the organization. Doing so would not only be good for women in particular but it would also be good for businesses in general as one of the perks of a positive CSR package is that it bodes well for the company over the long run. The public takes notice of companies that incorporate CSR into their working structure because of the economic, social and political effects it has in the world around them. CSR is about making an impact not just in the workplace but in society as well — and a CSR program that is oriented towards helping women to reduce prejudice in the workplace, break through the glass ceiling, and overcome bias in terms of pay scale and gender typecasting is a program that would have positive results in the public/social sphere as well.

In other words, businesses are seen by society as microcosms of the world — not as entities that are detached and separate from society. What happens in a business impacts the world around the business (as Enron for instance showed when it collapsed due to fraud and in the early 21st century). Businesses that take social issues to heart and develop a CSR program that addresses such issues are businesses that the public also takes to heart. In other words, businesses are major players in establishing the “better world” that social justice advocates push for in the public sector (Friedman, Miles, 2002, p. 1).

Therefore, when businesses adopt a position that is ethically fair to all genders, it adopts a position that is an example for the rest of society to follow and is one that progressive societies can rally around and support in turn. Businesses and communities work together to address similar needs and issues; no one issue is ever isolated. Thus, a business that addresses the issue of the woman’s role in leadership by creating an atmosphere of positive discourse, fairness, equality and respect, will by extension promote these same qualities and ideals in the social sphere. On the other hand, companies that fail to adopt a significant CSR strategy usually and inevitably come under fire from social activist groups or from social sectors in general for failing to adhere to a popular ethical principle that all of modern or progressive society can support (Pearce, Doh, 2005).

For this reason, a company that addresses the needs of women within the workplace by incorporating a positive and directional CSR program that promotes gender equality is a company that will have boosted its workplace organizational culture and supported the overall aims of women to attain fairness in leadership positions and respect with the way in which they are viewed. Moreover, the organizational culture that companies foster is one of the most important elements to a company’s success, and when a company addresses social issues in significant and positive ways it shows to its employees and workers that it cares about doing what is right for society. It creates an atmosphere of positive morale and positive attitudes that are then reflected in the way in which workers treat one another. Issues like gender and gender bias are overcome by extension because a policy of fairness and equality has been set at the top as part of the core mission of the company and its CSR program.

In conclusion, the role of women in leadership has changed considerably over the years thanks to the women’s movement and leaders like Steinem, who have advocated for social change and promoted education for women’s rights in the workplace and in society in general. A lot of positive ground has been covered as a result and women are now capable of seeking positions of leadership at the very highest level of authority in the world: as a leader of the United States of America. Women in roles of leadership in the workplace is, therefore, not a new phenomenon — but there are still negative issues associated with it that need to be addressed. Issues such as gender role typecasting, which limits the range in which women can movie in their fields due to bias, and issues of inequal pay scales remain. These can be addressed however through education in the public realm, as Steinem does with Ms. Magazine, and in the organizational realm through policy change and the adoption of programs of corporate social responsibility.


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Evers, A., Sieverding, M. (2014). Why do highly qualified women (still) earn less?

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Folta, S. C., Seguin, R. A., Ackerman, J., & Nelson, M. E. (2012). A qualitative study of leadership characteristics among women who catalyze positive community change. BMC Public Health, 12: 383.

Friedman, A., Miles, S. (2002). Developing Stakeholder Theory. Journal of Management Studies, 39(1): 1-21.

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Herrbach, O., & Mignonac, K. (2012). Perceived gender discrimination and women’s subjective career success: The moderating role of career anchors. Realtions Industrielles/Industrial Relations, 67 (1), 25- 50.

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