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Women’s Executive Leadership: A Necessary but Insufficient Requirement towards Gender Equity

Datum:06 februari 2023
Auteur:Edwina Wong
Women’s Executive Leadership: A Necessary but Insufficient Requirement towards Gender Equity
Women’s Executive Leadership: A Necessary but Insufficient Requirement towards Gender Equity

Women’s leadership initiatives have had major traction in receiving visibility, resources, and legitimacy as a way to achieve gender equity in the workplace. Women’s leadership initiatives typically see leadership as a way to empower women and increase their sense of confidence, assertiveness, or capability, ultimately to get women into leadership positions and promote upward career mobility. These initiatives are widespread, from major humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations and UNICEF to local Dutch efforts such as Talent naar de Top, one of the largest organizations to monitor and help women into top management positions.

Getting more women into leadership positions at work has had several benefits, some of which include normalizing women in authority positions, providing female role models, and making sure that women’s issues are vocalized at executive levels. Indeed, the focus on women’s leadership at work is certainly an important domain for achieving gender justice and equity; at the same time, women’s leadership alone is not sufficient. To achieve gender equity, we also need to remember to tackle the broader societal and organizational systems that make and sustain inequities for leaders and non-leaders alike.

Gender scholars and activists have criticized when women’s executive leadership becomes the sole focus of gender equity efforts. Firstly, women may not all desire executive leadership. Women who are in fraught or insecure conditions to get and keep a stable job, and/or women who are not physically, politically, or culturally secure may not prioritize their own leadership representation [1].

Even if they do, their executive presence only offers one step towards gender equity. After all, the precarities that many women face at work are linked to multiple pressure points that reside in and outside of the formal work floor, such as increasingly common gig work that make it difficult to secure financial stability or receive workers’ protections, difficulties in obtaining permissions for permanent work or stay (i.e., work or resident permits) to secure work, or resistance against women in formal work that may negatively affect women’s desire and capability to stay in their jobs. These are only some related problems that affect women’s position in the workplace that would be difficult to tackle by only focusing on the number of women in leadership positions at work.

Secondly, many corporate efforts for women’s leadership often focus on a very individual perspective. Organizational equity efforts that exclusively prioritize how women can individually climb the ranks may miss out on helping women who may not always have the means to change their circumstances by themselves, and who need social or organizational backing [2]. The specific backing can heavily depend on the context, but parallel to executive leadership initiatives organizations can start to consider how they can improve their existing hiring and retention systems to bolster secure and stable work. In that way, a larger collective can benefit from such a system than only the few who can attain leadership positions. 

Altogether, only focusing on getting women into managerial or executive positions may only help a limited group of women, and may miss out on the rest. Moreover, focusing on women’s leadership initiatives may inadvertently promote a very individual perspective in portraying the pathway to women’s equity, taking away the critical sense and power of the collective that is common in equity movements.

How can organizations move closer to a more comprehensive and sustainable change for women across various positionalities in society? To do so, organizations should consider a wider range of approaches to ensure women’s equity inside and outside of work rather than exclusively focusing on women’s leadership initiatives. Here are some suggestions:

1.      Broaden notions of leadership: Rather than only looking at executive or managerial, organizations can also think about how they can promote all-round leadership in securing equitable rights, distribution of resources, and opportunities to reinforce communities that face precarious economic, social, and educational conditions. In that way, leadership is not only promoted with a lens on individual pathways at work, but also in community spaces in striving for security and stability for the collective.

2.      Nothing about us without us: Rather than assume that everyone is striving for leadership opportunities, listen to the groups that you are seeking to benefit. Conduct focus groups or anonymous surveys that indicate points that need more organizational bolstering among women and other vulnerable groups across positions and occupations. Involve these people in setting the agenda for the investigation of these needs, implementing organizational-wide changes, and evaluating these changes.

3.      Focus on organizational systems and structures, rather than the individual: Research shows that women who experience barriers in the workplace often deal with problems that have less to do with their individual capacities, but more to do with organizational limitations (e.g., organizational resistance and norms, unequal distribution of organizational support or protections, lack of transparency [3, 4]. Have experts in this area (and the women that should be benefitting from these efforts) review and interpret policies, protocols, and organizational climate, keeping mind what is known about how societal precarities influence work.

References

1.       Nguyen, L. T., Taylor, G., Gibson, P., & Gordon, R. (2023). Advancing a critical social psychological perspective on women's leadership: A case illustration from the Global South. Applied Psychology, 72(1), 126-143.

2.       Chatterjee, S. (2020). A suitable woman: The coming-of-age of the ‘third world woman’ at the bottom of the pyramid: A critical engagement. Human Relations, 73(3), 378–400. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726719828445

3.       Ryan, M. K. (2023). Addressing workplace gender inequality: Using the evidence to avoid common pitfalls. British Journal of Social Psychology, 62(1), 1-11.

4.      Cortis, N., Foley, M., & Williamson, S. (2022). Change agents or defending the status quo? How senior leaders frame workplace gender equality. Gender, Work & Organization, 29(1), 205-221.

Edwina Wong (c.y.e.wong@rug.nl) is a PhD candidate at the Human Resource and Organizational Behavior department. With training in Social and Organizational Psychology, her research is on evaluating justice, equity, diversity and inclusion efforts for women.