Monday, 20 February 2012

Women in Leadership: The Labyrinth

As a working professional progressing on her career path, like many other determined young women, I have an ambition to become a leader some day.  However, the obstacles and challenges that women face in their workplaces are many and widespread. These intensify as women climb the corporate ladder and maintaining these positions at the top of the ladder can be an arduous task. The “glass ceiling,” has been accepted for the last two decades as the largest obstacle to female advancement in the workplace.

Let us take a look at status quo - While many women like Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and the CEO of Coca Cola Indira Nui have gained access to influential positions, the number of top female executives still falls far behind the number of men in the same positions. Statistically, while women boastfully occupy 40% of all managerial positions in the United States, only 6% of the Fortune  500’s top executives are female. Furthermore, of those firms, just 2% have women CEOs.

This observed scenario brings the followings questions to mind- Are men simply better, more natural leaders? Are women’s careers compromised by their family demands and responsibilities at home?  Or is a historically developed perspective of viewing a man as a leader, make the general populace place more confidence in a man than in a women? Or are women lacking efficacy in their leadership styles?

The problem is originating from discrimination present at all levels, not just at the top of the pyramid. Women aren’t dealing with a just a glass ceiling at the top, they’re facing a labyrinth.

With the necessity to conform to two, often conflicting, sets of expectations, women leaders are relentlessly held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. Given this situation, women empowerment is the need of the hour.

If women are to claim their share of leadership positions, and to operate effectively within such positions, it is imperative that they be aware of these differential expectations. One issue that mean need to address in their leadership is to do as the competitive culture demands and sometimes even act against their own values. Women time and again have struggled with the issue of morality and authenticity – basically identifying with the different persona that they may need to don while in their leadership positions.

Another aspect to examine is the fact that a woman leader is expected to lead with more compassion. While a man who is assertive and exerts power over people working for him, is considered a strong leader, a woman doing the same on the other hand is perceived negatively. Women who lead with an autocratic style are disliked more than those who enact a more democratic style. Additionally, Women who promote themselves and their abilities are viewed negatively. This stems from the fact that such agentic behaviour is perceived to counter the societal perception of the female who is supposed to be supportive and caring. This mismatch of expectations often poses a dilemma for women leaders who need to develop the ability to filter out the biased feedback on their leadership skills and construe their strengths and address the weaknesses in their leadership roles. It is thus key for a woman leader to be assertive and strong yet gentle at the same time. This will lead to a wider acceptance of the female leader.

However, this same compassion can sometimes lead to a position of disadvantage in the competitive work culture. The more involved style of leadership can be in direct conflict with a highly competitive culture and jeopardize their credibility as a leader. Eagly and Carli (2007) explained  “men, more than women, can succeed merely by ‘being themselves’ because they match other people’s concepts of what leaders are like. Women face more complexity because they initially don’t seem as leader-like to others and may also have somewhat different values and attitudes than most of their male colleagues” (p. 173).

Women are sometimes perceived as loquacious and people like to use that as a justification for ignoring much of what women say. People do not listen to or take direction from women as comfortably as they do from men. Women struggle with not getting enough attention when they speak in meetings and their comments and suggestions. They may be ignored or belittled, while the same words coming from a man’s mouth may have more of an impact.Given all this, it is not surprising to learn that, in order for women leaders to be accorded any credibility, they need  by legitimation by another established leader.

Women in leadership positions, specially in male-dominated contexts are well aware of the Trojan task that they have undertaken. Nevertheless, they are driven by a sense of competence and of positive impact and the opportunity to empower others.

The actual number of women leaders can be increased over time. Organizations can accelerate this by increasing awareness among their employees.  Established leaders can endorse women who seek leadership roles. Influential journalists and feminists can help this cause by trying to change the perception of people. And last but not the least, as individuals; we can give these women leaders a chance by abandoning our hypocritical stance and by believing in them. A combination of development efforts made on women leadership in conjunction with a slow but steady societal perception change will hopefully bridge the gendered leadership gap.


  1. Some of the productive and successful corporate firms in the world are run and at a time past ran by women, or has women managing large aspects of their business. We live in a age were every human resource is needed to sustain the demands out there, and woman are part of that demand and the resource.

  2. Women make great caring leaders, leaders with leadership quality and excellence in mind, and not forceful and domineering. We need more women leaders in Africa - more women in politics, business and education. We need all the women we can have.

  3. Women are often overlooked in leadership role, especially in Africa. This has really dented the continent ability to compete on global issues - economic, political. The soonest we get women involve in major leadership roles and positions the continent of we will never come to appreciate the resource in women we are overlooking,

  4. Encompassing all aspects of leadership capability, career progression and work/life balance, groups have become a highly regarded example of workplace excellence and achievement.