Women in Leadership Today and Societal Roadblocks – Part 1

By Jordan Winberg

The following article is part of a multi-part series of excerpts from the author’s senior thesis.

My research experience was with Professor Jo Ida Hansen in the vocational department of psychology. Professor Hansen was in-between projects during my semester there, so my time was mostly spent entering data from past projects, completing literature reviews, and helping to brainstorm ideas for the coming semester.

During my time there, I completed the STRONG interest inventory, as career assessments are a large part of the vocational department of psychology. My initial results were accidently run as a male, because my name is gender neutral. After the results were re-run as a female, I noticed discrepancies between job recommendations for male Jordan and female Jordan.

Male Jordan was recommended to pursue more leadership opportunities than female Jordan. When I asked why gender was a factor that was considered, it was explained to me that males and females significantly differ in job satisfaction and ability.

However, it is my personal belief that these differences may stem from learned behaviors more so than innate ability, and I think that discouraging females to break away from gender normed job positions is a practice that may be contributing to the deficit of females in leadership positions.

This paper was able to give me some more background information on the subject, and hopefully, it will be of interest to others as well.

Leadership in Women

The theory that women are not treated equally in the workplace and the theory that discrimination and stereotyping hold negative effects on women in the workplace, is not a new concept. In 1983, Madeline Heilman, PhD, created the “lack of fit” model for studying the effects of gender stereotypes on performance expectations and subsequent success. This model states that if a person is seen as a “bad fit” for a job, failure will be expected, and vice versa (Heilman, 1983). Therefore, the predisposition for negativity/positivity shapes future judgments and outcomes (confirmation bias), and can negatively affect women in the workplace who occupy jobs typically considered to be “for men”.

Today, the US has more women than men, women hold 60% of undergraduate degrees, women hold 60% of master’s degrees, and women make up 59% of the college-educated entry level workforce (Warner, 2014). However, women continue to be consistently underrepresented in traditionally “male” jobs, such as: executive roles, leadership roles, management roles, etc. This phenomenon does not exclude the US, which is globally ranked 60th in women’s political empowerment and 6th in women leadership in privatized sectors (World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014).

Furthermore, in America, a mere 14.6% of executive roles are held by women, and at the current growth rate, it is estimated that woman will not hold the same number of leadership roles as men until the year 2085 (Warner, 2014). It was over 30 years ago that Heilman gave scientific evidence to suggest women were negatively affected by gender discrimination. Nevertheless, men continue to dominate leadership roles.


Are There Gender Differences?

Are males and females different? Apart from the obvious biological differences between men and women, gender differences may not be as extreme as is commonly accepted, as a recent study suggests (Hyde, 2005). The “gender differences” theory is so widely accepted that few are even aware of the “gender similarities” hypothesis, which states that females and males have more similarities than they do differences.

To determine if the gender similarities theory could be supported, Hyde completed a meta-meta-analysis of 46 studies on gender differences, and found there were very few gender differences she felt were supported.

Hyde states that a lot of literature (such as psychology text books and citing articles) do not take these extremely small effect sizes into account; people may be looking for gender differences because they believe they exist, and they are only publishing knowledge to support that idea.

Therefore, Hyde hypothesizes a lot of our pre-existing knowledge regarding gender differences may not be as notable as we think. The only traits, during Hyde’s analysis, that were found to be largely different between males and females were physical strength (males were stronger), physical aggression (men were more physically aggressive), and sexual motivation (men were more sexually motivated). When taking effect size into account, it is possible many of our commonly accepted “gender differences” between male and females actually do not exist. Hyde went on to state that the over-exaggeration of these gender differences is harmful, especially when it comes to women in leadership roles.


Psychological Differences

However, the more commonly accepted idea is that there are significant psychological differences between men and women. One notable meta-analysis looked at the personality differences between men and women and found significant personality differences in the following areas: assertiveness, self-esteem, extroversion, anxiety, trust, and nurturing ability.

The degree to which men and women differ psychologically is arguable, and further research should be conducted. In any case, it is difficult to deny that some gender differences exist, even if the severity of the level of difference can be argued. If we are to assume that gender differences do exist, even if they are small in number and/or severity, then we must conclude that these differences might be able to affect leadership ability.

As stated above, evidence suggests the following personality traits may be significantly different between males and females: males are more sexually motivated, assertive/aggressive, and males have higher self-esteem; females are more extroverted, anxious, apt to trust someone, and nurturing (Feingold, 1994; Hyde, 2005). Two of these traits do have bodies of evidence that suggest that they can affect leadership effectiveness or perceived leadership effectiveness: assertion and self-esteem.


Continue reading Part 2 here


Jordan Winberg is…

6 thoughts on “Women in Leadership Today and Societal Roadblocks – Part 1

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