Women in Top Management: Broken Ladders and Human Rights

Women are still tokens in the corporate C-suite. In fact, many countries have static levels of female participation in top management – between 10% and 20% – despite an ever-growing talent pool.  Below, Karsten Jonsen argues the importance of gender diversity in the workplace, and considers what is holding women back.


Barriers to Gender Equality in the C-Suite

We have a long-standing romantic ideal that leaders are heroic, larger than life, aggressive, agentic males that control the environment and create game-changing visions – the late Steve Jobs was a case in point. In addition, there are well-documented psychological mechanisms in play for why men prefer to choose men for leadership positions, e.g. the similarity attraction paradigm and basic uncertainty reduction.1 Because men are in the driver’s seat, sponsoring and selecting their successors, we basically get homosocial reproduction: a system that men are best able to benefit from.

Women often work double-shifts, i.e. taking care of both career and household. When both are not working well, they tend to fall victim to retreat syndrome and focus on one area. And it often makes economic sense for families to focus on the career of the man, because his chances of success are much higher, and this decision is substantiated by the ongoing wage gaps that are currently widening in some countries, especially due to men’s higher bonuses.2

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About the Author

Karsten Jonsen is a Research Fellow in Organizational Behaviour and International Management at IMD, Switzerland. He earned his M.Sc. in Economics from CBS in Copenhagen, MBA from ESCP-EAP in Paris, France and a Ph.D. from the University of Geneva. His work has been published in Journal of International Business, Journal of Management Inquiry, International Journal of Conflict Management, Human Relations and British Journal of Management, and in numerous books. Dr. Jonsen has served as advisor to large corporations in the field of workforce diversity and he was the winner of the Carolyn Dexter Award for best international research paper at the Academy of Management 2010.


1.Kanter, R.M. (1977). Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books.
2.The National Management Salary Survey by The Chartered Management Institute in the United Kingdom was compiled data from more than 43,000 UK workers and showed that over their working lifetime men were typically set to earn £141,5000 more (in bonuses alone) than women doing exactly the same role. The survey also found that over the last year (2012-2013), male managers earned bonuses, which on average were double what their female counterparts received.
3.Doldor, E. et al. (2012). ‘Gender diversity on boards: The appointment process and the role of executive search firms’. Equality and human rights commission research report 85: Cranfield University.
4.Ellemers, N. & Barreto, M. (2008). ‘Maintaining the Illusion of Mritocracy: How Men and Women Interactively Sustain Gender Inequality at Work’. In Stephanie Demoulin, Jacques-Philippe Leyens, & John F. Dovidio (Eds.), Intergroup Misunderstandings. Impact of Divergent Social Realities (pp. 191-208). Psychology Press.
5.Hewlett, S.A. http://blogs.hbr.org/2007/08/is-your-extreme-job-killing-you?
6.www.theatlantic.com/business/print/2013/09/the-real-reason-why-women-are-leaving-wall-street. See also Catalyst research on women in US finance.
7.Harvard Business School case study: ‘Gender Equity’. The New York Times, September 7th, 2013.
8. Jonsen et al. (2010). ‘Gender Differences in Leadership: Seeing is Believing’. Journal of Equal Opportunities International, 29, 549-572.
9. Eagly, A.H. & Carli, L.L. (2003). ‘The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence’. The Leadership Quarterly, 14, 807-834.
10.Women “take care” and men “take charge” (2005). See this and related pieces of fine research at www.catalyst.org.
11.See for example Fajak, A. & Haslam, S.A. (1998), ‘Gender solidarity in hierarchical organisations’. British Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 73-94.
12.E.g., Kramer, V.W., Konrad, A.M. & Erkut, S. (2006). Critical mass on corporate boards: Why three or more women enhance corporate governance. Wellesley Centers for Women’s Publications Office.
13.Duguid, M. (2011). Female tokens in high-prestige work groups. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 116, 104-115.
14.For a splendid summary of mechanisms behind tokenism, inequality and intergroup relations, please see The Psychology of Legitimacy (2001), by J. T. Jost & B. Major (Eds.): Cambride University Press, UK.
15.Lerner (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Plenum: New York.
16.Jonsen et al. (2013). ‘The tragedy of the uncommons: Reframing workforce diversity’. Human Relations, 66, 271-294.
17.See also Schmitt et al. (2003). ‘Perceiving and responding to gender discrimination in organizations’. In Haslam et al. (Eds), Social identity at work, 277-292.
18.Haslam, S.A. et al. (2010). ‘Investing with prejudice’. British Journal of Management, 21, 484-497.
19.Stahl, G.S. et al. (2010). ‘Unraveling the Diversity-Performance Link in Multicultural Teams: Meta-analysis of Studies on the Impact of Cultural Diversity in Teams’. Journal of International Business Studies,  2010, 41, 690-709.
20.See for example “Lean In” (2013), in which Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) provides excellent documentation for barriers and gender discriminative forces, Random House: New York.
22.www.un.org – CEDAW, full text of the convention in English.
23.United Nations Human Rights Office of The High Commissioner, New York and Geneva, 2011.
24.Largarde, C. (2013). Women and the World Economy. See also www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/sdn/2013/sdn1310.pdf
25.Johnson, S. & Kwak, J. (2010). 13 Bankers. Pantheon Books, New York.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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