An Overview of the Literature on Gender, Race and Leadership in Organisations

Published: 2023/07/05 Number of words: 3585

The majority of extant leadership theory emanates from the United States and is represented as gender- and race neutral (House & Aditya, 1997; Nkomo, 2006). This is despite the fact that in-depth insight into race (Ospina & Foldy, 2009) and gender (Korabik & Ayman, 2007) has yet to penetrate mainstream leadership theory.

Earlier accounts of women in management, such as that of Stogdill (1981), were treated as a special or separate case from mainstream leadership studies.  These are the very types of “additive” theorising an intersectional approach to studying social phenomena warns against (Brewer, 1993).  However, to some extent this seems to still be the case if one considers approaches such as the ‘female advantage’ (Eagly, 2007; Eagly & Carli, 2003) or “feminine leadership” (Eagly & Johnson, 1990).  To some extent a ‘distinctly female’ approach to leadership has developed in the study of leadership, which stands in quite strong contrast with the classical Western, male dominated approach to leadership (Parker & Ogilvie, 1996).  The traditional approach to a male dominated view of ‘good leadership’ is associated with instrumentality, autonomy and a result-orientation (Billing & Alvesson, 2000).  It has been claimed that men tend towards leading autocratically, while women tend to lead democratically (Eagly & Johnson, 1990).  Female leaders have also been said to exhibit more transformational leadership styles (Carless, 1998), with a focus on effective teams, building and maintaining relationships and trust (Paris et al., 2009; Stanford et al., 1995; Trinidad & Normore, 2005).

These simplistic connections made between gender and leadership outcomes are quite reductionist in nature and run the risk of further reproducing inequality by inadvertently legitimising the masculine conception of leadership (Parker, 2005).  These assumed links between gender and leadership outcomes assume significant homogeneity across all women leaders (Parker & Ogilvie, 1996), disregard the fact that male and female identities are co-constructed (Collinson & Hearn, 1996) and also that these social constructions are embedded in a wider societal context with various influences like history or legislation.  It has also been found that claims of ‘interpersonally-oriented’ women leaders versus ‘task-oriented’ men leaders are mainly supported by research from laboratory experiment- and assessment studies, from which participants are not selected for actual leadership role occupancy (Eagly & Johnson, 1990).

In a meta-analysis of research findings regarding perceived leadership styles (as rated by followers), Eagly and Johannesen-Schmidt (2001) found that women are observed to exhibit more transformational leadership behaviours, which seem to fit the earlier critiqued view of a gender-dichotomy within organisational leadership enactment.  However, it is proposed that these differences in ratings made by followers for their various male and female leaders is argued to be the result of challenges women face when attempting to use traditional hierarchical styles of leading, rather than an innate preference towards said transformational styles.  Further criticism against the idea of a gender advantage in organisational leadership can be found in the secondary analysis of interview data relating to the experiences of men and women of being and during the process of becoming union stewards, conducted by Bryant-Anderson and Roby (2012).  They note that in a union context white men were far more likely to show an easy-going, hands-off or democratic leadership approach, while stewards of colour and white women tend towards a more strong, direct and uncompromising style.  However, instead of these leadership enactments being assumed to be the product of some inherent property of the leader (union steward), it was found that women and people of colour were supposedly more easily perceived to be incompetent or not taken seriously as a result of racial- and gender prejudice and therefore opted for a more direct and uncompromising leadership style.

From a methodological stance, the ‘female advantage’ in leadership has been challenged for its objectivity and empirical rigor (Vecchio, 2003).  It is said that the attempted merging of leadership constructs and gender constructs which imply an inherent relationship between constructs such as femininity and concern for people or between masculinity and initiating structure (on which the argument for female advantage is based) is superficial and overly simplistic (Vecchio, 2002).  Vecchio (2002) cites various authors in support of this assertion.  Firstly it is said that the “people-structure concern” dichotomy in itself is overly simplistic as more leadership behavioural dimensions exist and it is proposed that a preoccupation with this dichotomy reveals more about the researchers than the actual leader (Kerr & Jermier, 1978).  Then it should also be noted that the notion of a distinct difference in how men and women lead has its roots in a study where 200 women and 50 men were interviewed and which had an unreported number of women either refusing to participate or insisting that there are no real differences between male and female leaders (Loden, 1985).

If the aforementioned argument about a female advantage holds true and in addition to this, one considers national policy for the promotion of equality and diversity like that of the EE Act or BBBEE Act in South Africa, one may pose the question “why are females still so grossly underrepresented in organisational leadership positions?”.  In an attempt to answer this question, one may consider some critiques against the proposed “female advantage”.  There are several accounts in the literature of how individuals who act outside of their (gender) stereotypes are discriminated against (Eagly & Karau, 2002; Glick et al., 1988).  So, theoretically women may have a leadership advantage, but are still kept on the periphery due to discriminatory practices.  However, these claims of advantages based in gender may not be as beneficial to women as one may expect.  Billing and Alvesson (2000) explain that the gender labelling of leadership may be useful in that it challenges conventional conceptions of leadership, however they warn that this practice may present misleading impressions of women’s orientation towards leadership and reproduce stereotypes and the gender divide.  These stereotypes are reproduced because the acknowledgement of ‘feminine leadership’ as an alternative to ‘masculine leadership’ inadvertently legitimises ‘masculine leadership’ (Parker, 2005) and supports the ideal white male leader prototype.  In addition to this, evidence against the position that females tend towards transformational leadership behaviours exists.

Korabik and Ayman (2007) propose a model of social interaction which accounts for the notion that gender roles exist within social relationships.  This is an important point for consideration, since the proposed definition of leadership for this research relies heavily on the assumption that relationships sustain the leadership process.  According to their model, one’s sex acts as cue which activates stereotypes (about societal gender-roles) within interactions between leader, supervisor and subordinate and behaviour during interactions are then moderated by certain assumptions held by the involved parties (such as sex-typing of tasks or skewed gender ratios in groups).  This model places emphasis on the importance of relationships, but also the societal context these relationships are embedded in – which provides the prototype for gender roles.

From individual (experience) and macro (societal) factors regarding gender and leadership, one should also consider seemingly organisational-level factors which may impact on women’s ability to access and practice leadership.  In terms of organisational constraints that contribute to the challenges women face in entering leadership positions, three related concepts should be discussed.  These are the phenomena named the ‘glass escalator’, the ‘glass ceiling’ and the ‘glass cliff’.  Reference was made earlier about how men in occupations traditionally associated with- and significantly overrepresented by women face challenges to their masculinity (Cross & Bagilhole, 2002).  Quite interestingly, in contrast to these views of men facing significantly more challenges than women, it has been found that in women dominated occupations such as early child care and nursing, men tend to ‘climb internal career ladders’ at a much faster pace than their female counterparts (Hultin, 2003).  This phenomenon has been called the ‘glass escalator’.  Possible explanations proposed include gender discriminatory promotion processes enacted by, co-workers, supervisors, and clients.

In contrast to the ‘glass escalator’, the ‘glass ceiling’ hypothesis states that women experience higher difficulty in penetrating senior organisational positions and also face more challenges in senior positions when compared to men.  The ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon is characterised by ‘unseen barriers’ that keep women (and other minorities) from reaching the upper echelons of organisational leadership which do not relate to actual job criteria. The effect of glass ceiling  increases as one moves up organisational hierarchy, affecting chances of advancement disproportionately and also growing over the span of one’s career (Cotter et al., 2001).  Factors found to perpetuate and reproduce the ‘glass ceiling’ include a denial of its existence, the gender socialization of women into certain social roles and with limited views of success, restricted access to informal social networks based on historical precedence, women turning against women and also simply a corporate culture of not hiring or promoting women into senior positions (Wrigley, 2002).  A preliminary study of archival data on organisational performance and board appointments of FTSE 100 suggested the existence of a ‘glass cliff’ (Ryan & Haslam, 2005).  These so called ‘glass cliffs’ are situations where the culmination of various actions by decision-making groups in an organisation leads to a disproportionate appointment of women into leadership positions in times of crisis (Ryan & Haslam, 2007), which then in turn could create the illusion that the board appointment could have been the cause of the crisis (Judge, 2003).  It is argued that this is not a ‘natural’ or inevitable step in women leaders’ careers, but a reality nonetheless (Ryan & Haslam, 2007) and in such cases women are inevitably set up for failure (Haslam & Ryan, 2008).

Acker’s (2006) conception of inequality regimes resonates with this assertion that organisational factors contribute and somehow maintain inequalities experienced by certain groups.  According to this proposed analytical lens for the study of borders to equality, bases of inequality such as gender and race are used to shape organisational structures such as hierarchies and job-segregation which then systematically reproduce inequality by making gender and race discrimination essentially invisible.  Indeed, the literature reveals a systematic reproduction of gender and racial inequality in organisational leadership.  These inequalities are produced and reproduced, through organisational processes that promote invisibility and legitimacy of inequalities and controls that prevent protest against inequalities (Acker, 2006).  Using tools such as Acker’s (2006) ‘Inequality Regimes’, as analytical tool and by considering the strategies adopted by underrepresented individuals in organisational leadership such as black women to construct leadership identities (Johnson & Thomas, 2012), provides an opportunity to examine how certain groups find themselves in multiple positions of privilege and others in multiple positions of disadvantage, based on their membership to certain social categorizations.  If we reflect on the three main bases of intersecting inequalities as Acker (2006) postulates and consider her example of male middle managers who may stand to lose more (privilege) than male top executives, it illustrates clearly how not only gender – or even gender and race – may serve to benefit some and place others at a disadvantage, but also how social class may also add further complexity to an organisation’s level of inequality.  Organisational structures such as hierarchies, reporting lines, working hours and the like which are considered as a ’given’ in the corporate world are so deeply ingrained with gendered concepts that then serve to reproduce and perpetuate gender inequality in organisations (Acker 1990; Collinson & Hearn 1996; Itzin & Newman 1995).  As Acker (2006) explains, in her discussion on ‘Inequality Regimes’, the commonly known ‘working-day’ is based on the assumption that the work is done by a male who has the ability to do so because he has a female at home who is taking care of the household.  Therefore, even with organisation practices that promote diversity and inclusion and legislation which positively discriminates (Noon, 2010), entrenched gendered organisational structures prevent equality from being realised.

This situation could arguably remain unchanged until mainstream management theory is penetrated by gender and race leadership theory.  As it stands, extant leadership theory is presented as gender- and race neutral (Sanchez et al., 2007), while in fact the extant leadership theory is dominated by ‘white male exemplars’ of leadership which results in the subsequent marginalisation of groups outside the Caucasian middle-class male category (Rosette et al., 2008).  By considering how identity dimensions such as gender and race compound and affect leadership outcomes, one is able to uncover more of the complex social dynamics which could give insight into societal structures that maintain inequality.  For example, evidence that suggests women and racial minorities do not have the same access to formal and informal social networks in a corporate setting (Podolny & Baron, 1997). Or it could uncover more positive, somewhat counter-intuitive, insight into social dynamics in a corporate setting, like the findings of Livingston et al. (2012) which showed, based on participant ratings, that black women who acted in more dominant ways, rather than a communal manner, received the same evaluations from subordinates as their white male counterparts, as opposed to the expected backlash from acting outside of their gender – and race-stereotypical roles.  This study, which considered the effect of agency on followers’ perceptions, used fictitious leader profiles and required rating based on leader behaviours.  It was found that both gender and race have a combined mediating effect on participant ratings.  With regards to the findings for black females, this stands in quite strong contrast with assertions from previous studies that imply a disadvantage for all women in masculine hiring/promotion situations.  For example, from an examination of resume evaluations made by business professionals, it was found that sex discrimination was mediated by the gender-typing of occupations (Glick et al., 1988) and in a study which compared men and women in a simulated hiring scenario agentic women were consistently rated lower than identically agentic men, however this effect was only observed where the management role (being hired for) was feminized (Rudman & Glick, 1999).  Considering gender and race in leadership theory can therefore offer possibly valuable, insights which may include knowledge on leadership emergence, and how this varies across gender groups.

In contrast to propositions that investigating the experiences of underrepresented individuals, and also specifically women from racial minority groups can offer valuable and positive insights, is that of the backlash experienced by individuals who are perceived to be active agents.  So, while Livingston et al. (2012) found that agentic black women actually received the same evaluations as white men, some report that female leaders acting in an agentic manner might result in backlash from subordinates (Brescoll & Uhlmann, 2008; Okimoto & Brescoll, 2010; Rudman & Glick, 1999).  Key in this argument is the limitations placed on self-expression.  In this instance, proposed explanations for this occurrence include enduring gender stereotypes and thus the perception that female leaders and especially black female leaders are holding a gender incongruent position (Brescoll et al., 2010). This highlights the importance of considering compounding gender and race effects on the leadership experience rather than one single facet of a leader’s identity.  However, findings such that presented by Livingston et al. (2012) are limited and would therefore require further investigation.


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