Social Perceptions, Gender Roles, and Female Leadership: A Theoretical Grounding for Understanding the Underrepresentation of Women in Top-Level Management

Social Perceptions, Gender Roles, and Female Leadership: A Theoretical Grounding for Understanding the Underrepresentation of Women in Top-Level Management

Gaeun Seo (University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, USA) and Wen-Hao David Huang (University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch043
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Recent research continues to recognize the need for scholarly attention to top-level management as it relates to gender diversity in the workplace. As suggested, a high degree of diversity in top management could positively influence business growth and enable companies to address an aging workforce, attracting and/or retaining the most qualified talents for leadership positions. However, vertical gender segregation in organizations' top management levels remains common practice. Thus, to inform best practices for developing and sustaining a diverse leadership talent pool, this disparity needs to be addressed by identifying the underlying theories of this issue, which can facilitate a timely understanding of the structural oppression faced by women in their ascensions to senior management positions. This chapter presents a synthesis of American literature with the aim of identifying theoretical relationships related to social perceptions of gender roles regarding women's relatively delayed advancement to corporate senior management positions.
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A growing body of research indicates that high gender diversity in corporate senior management positions creates a significant and positive influence on business growth potential (Chiloane-Tsoka, 2012; Clarke, 2011; Grant Thornton, 2012). A recent study of Fortune 500 companies conducted by Catalyst (Carter &Wagener, 2011) found that those with maintained higher involvement of women on their board significantly outperformed those with lower involvement with regard to capital return investment (60% higher), return on equity (46% higher), and return on sales (60% higher). Higher female participation rates at the senior level supplies talent, addresses an aging workforce, provides role models for high-potential women, and attracts/retains the best fit people in leadership positions (Burke & Vinnicombe, 2005; Desvaux, Devillard-Hoellinger, & Meaney, 2008).

Nevertheless, women remain underrepresented in senior leadership positions, and women in lower and middle management increased (Baumgartner & Schneider, 2010; Hoyt, 2010). In 2013, women filled 51.4% of all management and professional positions (Catalyst, 2014a) at Fortune 500 companies, but only 14.6% of executive officer positions were female occupied (Catalyst, 2014b). By 2014, of the Fortune 1000 companies documented, only 51 companies (5%) had female CEOs (Catalyst, 2014c).

These figures document a gap between women and executive positions (Cook & Glass, 2014; Jackson & O’Callaghan, 2009), a phenomenon frequently described as a “glass ceiling,” defined as a set of invisible upward mobility barriers that would diversify senior management positions (Baumgartner & Schneider 2010; Burke & Vinnicombe, 2005; Hoyt, 2010; Jackson & O’Callaghan, 2009). This metaphor is often used to describe discrimination to higher leadership levels rather than entry level ones (Prasad, D’Abate, & Prasad, 2007).

Various strategies from organizational practices, career developmental programs/ training, and policy initiatives have been conducted to address the gender imbalance at higher leadership levels. Organizational practices implemented to achieve the advancement of women to more senior leadership levels include work-life balance (Dreher, 2003), e-mentoring (Headlam-Wells, Gosland, & Craig, 2005), and women-only developmental programs (Clarke, 2011). Policy initiatives include Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) legislation and affirmative action plans (Lockwood, 2004).

Key Terms in this Chapter

A Lack of Fit Model: Individuals tend to suffer from a perceived lack of fit to their assigned positions in the workplace if the attributes required in these positions are not congruent with the attributes ascribed to individuals.

Backlash: Any type of hostility or sanctions that people express regarding counter-stereotypical behaviors.

Glass Ceiling: A set of invisible barriers that prevent women’s upward mobility to senior management.

Social Perception of Gender Roles: Socially constructed roles assigned to each gender, such as women as caregivers and men as breadwinners.

Self-Selection: Women’s low aspiration to seek career advancement because of their stereotypical responsibilities as a caretaker.

Role Congruity Theory: A theory to explain the scarce number of women in top-level management, considering a perceived incongruity between the attributes of a strong leader and attributes assigned to women’s gender roles.

Long Hours’ Work Norm: A long-hours culture required by individuals for promotion to managerial positions.

Social Role Theory: A theory emphasizing persistent beliefs about the different attributes of women and men.

Think Manage-Think Male: The dominant image of successful leaders in an organization is typically strongly sex-typed male.

Feminine Modesty: Women’s tendency to under-represent their achievements; whereas men promote their accomplishments.

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