Is it harder for women to climb the career ladder than it is for men – and why?

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12 January
14:45
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4 February
06:30

Yes, it is harder for women to get top corporate and official positions. Studies show that the barriers materialize during hiring processes and promotion processes, when men who do the hiring tend to associate “leadership” with stereotypically “masculine” traits.

It’s helpful to look here to the case of Nordic countries, which are known to be very progressive on the gender equality front. According to the 2014 Gender Gap Index prepared by the World Economic Forum, Nordic countries take the top five places in the Gender Gap Index ranking. But if we take a closer look, we will see that few women in these countries have made it to top corporate leadership positions. The Economist famously called this “A Nordic Mystery” in a 2014 article. So what is happening in these countries, and why are policies failing when it comes to top corporate and official positions?

Men who do the hiring tend to associate “leadership” with stereotypically “masculine” traits.

Despite large-scale policy efforts, this article reports that Nordic countries fail to bring about gender equality in corporate leadership. According to the article, Denmark ranks “72nd in terms of the gender gap among senior managers and officials. There may be more women sitting round the table at board meetings, but the person who runs the show is almost always a man: only 6% of Norwegian listed firms had a female chief executive in 2013, little better than the 5% of American companies on the Fortune 500 list that have a woman as CEO" (The Economist, November 15, 2014).

Women are viewed as less able to perform leadership or managerial roles, particularly when they experience conflict between social roles in their private spheres and leadership roles in their public spheres.

This “Nordic mystery” should make us reevaluate how policymakers are trying to close the gender gap and why they are failing in the case of top corporate and official positions.

Position segregation can in part be explained by the so-called “glass ceiling” phenomenon. This metaphor refers to invisible barriers that women face as they climb up organizational ladders. Many of the most prominent studies in this field conclude that the hiring and promotion processes are crucial – that is when women face institutional barriers that prevent them from getting leadership positions. Disadvantages occur at these processes when decision-makers, influenced by implicit biases, fail to give qualified women equal opportunities on the job.

20 years later, Schein’s follow-up experiment in the 1990’s revealed that while men still held the perception that “masculine” traits are necessary for managerial roles, women did not conform to this perception anymore.

Studies that explore factors that shape implicit gender biases tell us that leadership roles are seen as best fitting for men. This is because important leadership traits are associated with “masculine” traits of aggressiveness, decisiveness and assertiveness. The association of “masculine” traits with leadership is born out of socially-constructed gender role expectations. The “Think Manager-Think Male” theory (originally discussed by Schein in 1975) is based on an experiment about how socially-constructed gender role expectations framed perceptions of traits that are necessary for a manager. Schein’s initial experiment revealed that managerial and leadership roles are mostly associated with “masculine” traits. 20 years later, Schein’s follow-up experiment in the 1990’s revealed that while men still held the perception that “masculine” traits are necessary for managerial roles, women did not conform to this perception anymore. On the other hand, “Role Incongruity” theory explains that women are viewed as less able to perform leadership or managerial roles, particularly when they experience conflict between social roles in their private spheres and leadership roles in their public spheres.

These theories help us understand that regardless of large-scale policy initiatives such as those implemented by Nordic countries, until society is able to overcome gender role biases, women will face invisible barriers. 

For more on this, you can also check out this post about the struggles women face in technology, and these two answers about the gender pay gap: Why are women still paid less than men?and Why does the gender pay gap exist?

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