In today’s dynamic world with highly-developed modern societies, equality, diversity, and inclusion have become the most crucial topics of both social sciences and public life. International, governmental, and organizational units focus on implementing strategies, practices, legislative and regulatory interventions aimed at “creating workplaces that better reflect the diverse societies in which they operate”. The biggest challenge for the female part of societies is the realm of leadership, especially at the highest levels of power. At the same time, in order to feel equal in talents, capacities, and rights to be recognized and appreciated, women need to realize themselves as leaders. The emphasis made by modern societies on the humanistic values of individuals’ unique experiences makes the problem of women in leadership one of the principal social and even philosophical issues. A leader’s performance is closely associated with the highest development of all spheres of intricate personalities, including motivational and spiritual domains. A woman must have equal opportunities to self-actualize and achieve the highest development of her unique existence. All in all, the role of women in leadership is a very controversial topic: on the one hand, sensible reasoning and unbiased observation force one to conclude about the effectiveness of female leaders. On the other hand, numerous social issues prevent women from attaining and fulfilling leadership roles in top management circles. The present paper focuses on the discussion of the multifaceted question of the female leadership, its role in the development of societies and organizations, and the ways of confronting its barriers.
Research from the social sciences has shown that women are capable of producing a much positive effect on both the workplace and the workers. It is accounted for by the fact that they are more prone than men to acquiring the style that implies personal and organizational outcomes. In other words, by inspiring and motivating the workers to achieve higher goals than they have ever planned, such leaders promote the followers’ personal development as well as better results for their company. All these characteristics are innate to the transformational leadership, the concept of which was first suggested by J. M. Burns in the 1970s and later developed by B. Bass in 1981.
Most women have the values inherent to transformational leadership and they consider this style to be most effective. Thus, they collaborate, empower, encourage their subordinates and make them feel at ease to approach the manager on any issue. Such type of leadership gives people unbelievable strengths and promotes them to realize talents and abilities that otherwise would stay only in potential. As a result, workers achieve the satisfaction of the highest human need for self-actualization (from Abraham Maslow’s motivational theory). Additionally, the transformational leadership style is also called and considered to be ethical and having absolute moral foundations. After all, it enables employees to experience the most productive feelings and emotions in the workplace. Moral transformational leaders are effective role models for the followers’ ethical behavior; they promote job satisfaction, self-development, and self-confidence. Overall, it is obvious that women’s nurturing and caring leadership style, with the values of inclusion, honesty, participation, collaboration, and gender and race equity make them effective leaders both for the organization’s outcomes and personal well-fare of the workers.
A further positive aspect of women’s leadership is its creative qualities and original viewpoints. In problem-solving and decision-making, they are likely to ignore rules and take risks, encourage innovation, facilitate change, and possess vision. The latter is the innate quality of a truly charismatic transformational leader who can inspire, motivate, and stimulate the followers. Comparing the studies of transformational leadership, for example, by Bass & Steidlmeier (1999) and women’s leadership style by Paludi and Coates (2011) and Nichols (2014), it is possible to conclude that women possess all the four components of transformational leadership: idealized influence (or charisma), inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration.
There is one more facet of women’s transformational leadership style. They are reported to “reframe challenges into opportunities”. To be able to “bounce back from adversity”, as Margolis (2010) puts it, and turn hardships and crucibles into productive experiences is the essential quality of a successful leader. Such a person can teach others to counter adversity with resilience, which is “the capacity to respond quickly and constructively to crises”. It is possible to observe that, in tough times, women demonstrate this vital ability to remain strong, focused, and ready to turn negative experiences into stimuli to change and develop. Consequently, it becomes apparent why women are valuable for organizations, particularly in times of hardships.
Taking the perspective of society, on the whole, women’s advancement in leading positions has been undeniable, especially in the last three decades. Every researcher in the field of leadership admits and gives statistics that women have been recently taking top positions in different spheres, even in traditionally male-dominated politics and industrial branches. Vecchio (2002) claims that the involvement of women in executive, managerial, and administrative leadership roles, as well as their entry into the global political realm, has expanded rapidly over the last 40 years. For instance, the author states that Gallup poll results showed the increasing willingness of the US population to vote for women, “from 33% in the 1930s to 92% in 1999”. A more recent study by Livingston (2013) also asserts that, in the past four decades, organizations have considerably increased the representation of women and minorities (racial, ethnic and others). However, the researcher recognizes that in top leadership positions, women continue being critically underrepresented. Thus, while 40% of middle management positions are occupied by women, only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and fewer than 3% are members of ethnic minority groups. As the author puts it, “the traditional or prototypical leader in Western society is both White and male”. Paludi and Coates (2011) add that women own less than 6% of TV stations, 22% are leaders in journalism, 20% - radio and 28% news directors. Finally, women represent only 17% of the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Essentially, there are various reasons for such factual stark underrepresentation of women in the top management circles. Concerning gender and leadership, social science and psychology, researchers have documented numerous issues, such as masculine and feminine stereotypes, women’s higher family responsibilities, pay equity or gender wage gap, perceptions of leaders’ effectiveness in society and at workplace, male and female mentorship and career guidance, reciprocal support of women and the feeling of “sisterhood”, and others.
Since the major part of research in the field of male and female leadership is concentrated on the social issue of stereotypes, it is reasonable to focus on its exploration. Vecchio (2002) starts by critiquing the concept of gender advantage in leadership and states that no gender differences can account for a leader’s effective or ineffective behavior. To overcome dangerous stereotypical reasoning, it is necessary to use critical judgment and an evidence-based approach. However, it is not so easy to eliminate bias and stereotypes on the societal level. Thus, Fiske (2012) presents the case study of various types of stereotypes and prejudices, like ambivalent sexism, heterosexism, racism, anti-immigrant biases, ageism, and classism and claims that such social categories as gender, race, and age “impinge on our impressions”. Gender or sex-role stereotypes inhibit women’s performance in organizations due to the fact that regardless of whether female leaders exhibit typically “male” or “female” behavior in managerial positions, they are equally blamed and punished by society’s opinion. Standardized mental pictures of socially appropriate feminine behavior are biased and subjective in nature; they are imposed by cultural norms and organizational practices with the purpose of keeping women powerless. Moreover, they influence not only the perceptions and attitudes of society as a whole and the workers at the workplace but also women’s self-concepts. Except for structural barriers to women’s management such as inflexible working hours or lack of childcare, there appear psychological barriers to their leadership involvement and advancement. Here belong diminished self-confidence, underestimation of own abilities and talents, lack of desire to receive top positions, fear of success, passivity, and role conflict, “glass ceiling”, women’s lack of mentors in high-level positions, and women’s exclusion from informal networks.
Without any doubt, on all levels, modern society does not officially allow gender inequality as well as racial, ethnic, or any other type of segregation. Modern women do not suffer from legal restrictions on their job performance that were the part of reality in the 19th or even 20th centuries. However, instead of structural hindrances, generation Y faces “the shift from overt to covert barriers”. Only on the surface, it seems that the battle for equality is no longer vital in the world of rapid progress, globalization, and choice. At the first casual glance, any position or field is open to women’s choice and free will; they are no longer confined to “selecting between being a nurse, teacher or typist”. However, a shrewder look into the depth of the social issue of gender inequality allows realizing its persistence: the gender pay gap is a reality, and the few women among the male majority in the high power positions get lost and remain unheard. Virtually, structural barriers from the past have been replaced by perhaps even stronger invisible impediments of gender biases, whose particular strength lies in their unconscious nature.
Stereotypical thinking simplifies the process of social perception and judgment by utilizing specific categories that individuals acquire during their life experiences. To a certain extent, such categorized thinking has advantages for a person’s orientation and functioning, in the first turn, due to its rapidity and lack of effort. However, uncritical reasoning and oversimplified opinions result in unconscious bias and dangerous stereotypes about gender-stratified male and female qualities. For example, women are described as having the following qualities: aware of feelings of others, humanitarian values, creative, intuitive, helpful, cheerful, sophisticated, and modest. Men possess such characteristics as well-informed, objective, consistent, self-confident, analytic, aggressive, competitive, and ambitious. Overall, the workers, as well as societies, on the whole, perceive masculine agentic behaviors as inherent to effective leaders whereas women are supposed to demonstrate only communal qualities. Otherwise, excessively assertive, confident, and generally more agentic behaviors of female leaders will cause punishment by social disapproval.
In such a way, stereotypes regarding appropriate masculine and feminine behavior ultimately create the situations of “backlash” and “double bind” that result in preventing women from successful advancement in top management spheres. It turns out that women leaders are not allowed to demonstrate agentic, assertive, determined leader qualities that are supposed to be effective for a leader’s behavior. On the one hand, people negatively evaluate women leaders who demonstrate agentic and assertive behavior, even if it is needed to achieve organizational tasks. However, when women demonstrate warmth and communal behavior, people blame them for lacking the tough and directive qualities of good leaders. It is difficult for women to believe in their success in the condition that nobody thinks it possible. Women internalize these negative attitudes and perceptions of them as leaders who are a priori doomed to fail and who hesitate even to apply for a job.
In fact, society does not view women as fitting top positions because gender stereotypes contradict leader stereotypes. This concept is represented in research by the so-called “think manager – think male” notion. Numerous studies in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Japan, and other countries worldwide have proved the persistent influence of this biased belief on attitudes regarding males and females fit with leadership roles. Thus, the “think manager – think male” phenomenon makes all social groups unduly believe that characteristics associated with managerial success correspond to masculine qualities and contradict the female ones. In brief, in general, men, taken as a gender group, without even considering their individual differences, are perceived to be more appropriate for leadership positions than women. This dangerous attitude has prevailed through years despite all the societal, legislative, and organizational interventions aimed at gender equality. The “think manager – think male” bias continues fostering injustice and prejudice against women’s managerial selection, placement, promotion, and training decisions. Finally, research traditionally divides gender stereotypes into descriptive, prescriptive (or injunctive), and prescriptive ones.
Numerous social issues preventing women from equal representation in the top leader realms must be rationally addressed. Otherwise, women will never acquire decent societal status and recognition of their abilities, qualities, and talents. As Kark and Eagly (2010) assert, women’s “paths” to leadership are very complicated, demanding from them much more knowledge, skills, competencies, and personal qualities than from men in the identical managerial positions. This “labyrinth” is very hard to overcome but, nevertheless, it is worth trying. To help women discover their leadership talents and achieve the highest possible career goals, the structure and culture of organizations should be constantly improved in the direction of creating all necessary conditions for women. These can include flexible working hours so that women were not confused about balancing their life and work, facilities for childcare, and other external factors.
The interventions, which seem to be most effective, must be directed at raising women’s level of awareness and consciousness. In particular, women should learn all the peculiarities of societal perceptions, their stereotypes, and the unconscious way they work. By receiving sufficient education, women can learn all the crucial information about the socio-cultural issues on the path to leadership, and then, navigate through stereotypes in such a way that they do not present barriers. In this concern, it is necessary to learn effective strategies and specific techniques of influencing people’s perceptions and opinions. It seems reasonable that the most productive way to deal with unconscious societal bias against female leadership is to make people conscious and aware of their prejudiced beliefs. By means of reasonable argumentation, women must learn to discover the biased foundation of certain beliefs to the workers, managers, and people in general. It is evident that to be able to do this, women have to learn effective ways of persuading listeners, having strong impressions on them, and impacting their judgments. All in all, educational establishments preparing leaders should include the corresponding courses into their curricula to achieve the aforementioned goals. These interventions would prepare women, first, for proper and sensible acceptation of the outcomes and effects of societal biases against them as leaders. Second, it would allow them to direct their perceptions of themselves as leaders in a more reasonable and constructive course.
In summary, the paper has discussed the phenomenon of female leadership and provided a review of social issues and obstacles to women’s attainment of leading roles. In particular, the threat of gender stereotypes for female leaders and their followers at the workplace was described and analyzed. However, the paper has claimed that women’s innate outstanding potential to lead can and must be realized and actualized for the sake of society. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to combine organizational, legislative, and governmental interventions with the personal development of all individuals, both males, and females. Even though the rate of workplace gender equality improves slowly and it remains frustrating for many women striving for successful managerial careers, it is worth spending efforts to implement this important sociocultural change towards the equity of all members. The words by Whelan (2013) illustrate the aforementioned opinion, “Achieving gender balance in organizations requires organizations to change the way they operate, and individuals to change the way they think and behave”. It seems though that this statement concerns society as a whole whereas changes in perceptions based on sound reasoning instead of bias should set in, to allow women to use their leadership abilities and talents for the sake of societal development.