Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Let’s Not Waste a Great Opportunity

Bert A. Spector

With six weeks remaining until the U.S. Presidential Election, the race is locked in a virtual deadlock.  That fact, in and of itself, is pretty remarkable given that a woman is as likely to be the next president as a man.  I understand that readers in countries such as the UK and Germany will not find that circumstance to be so remarkable.  But for the United States, it would stand as a genuine monument.

In my recently published book, Discourse on Leadership: A Critical Appraisal, I analyze the persistence of bias – biases of all types – that permeates both the practice and interpretations of leadership. There are, of course, many types of biases that constrict the choices people make about leaders.  For the moment, however, I would like to concentrate on the role gender bias plays in the selection and enactment of leadership in business organizations.

Leadership has long been constructed as a masculine pursuit – a gender bias – that is practiced largely by men.  A 2015 Upshot column in the New York Times ran the headline, “Fewer Women Run Big Companies than Men Named John.” Among the chief executives of America’s top corporations, 5.3 percent were, in fact, men named John[1].  On the other hand, only 4.1 percent were women.  There were also more CEOs named David than women.  This was not good news!

At least since the dawn of modern leadership discourse, which I trace to Thomas Carlyle’s 1840 lectures on the role of the Great Man in shaping world history, the entry of women into the ranks of top leadership has been resisted.  That resistance manifests itself in two ways.  First, popular notions of what it means to be a leader slant toward gendered notions of masculinity. And second, women are often disadvantaged in the construction of a pipeline: a career ladder that, from the outset of one’s employment, offers the potential for upward mobility in the corporate hierarchy.

In analyzing that resistance, we can’t afford to be blind to the ongoing power of individual prejudice.  But we can also recognize what Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb referred to as the “unseen barriers” that erect institutional roadblocks to the entry of women into the ranks of top leadership. [2]

A deeply held and widely shared belief that leaders are defined by what are traditionally thought to be masculine characteristics – assertive, controlling, confident, ambitious, dominant, forceful, daring and competitive – is only one of many sources of institutionalized resistance to women leaders.  Let’s add:

  • A pattern of denying women the opportunities for international placement.
  • The tendency to downplay or ignore many of the contributions made by women in organizations – anticipating problems before they crop up, working to keep teams functional – by higher-ups.
  • Work flexibility policies designed by institutions to allow customized hours for parents that stigmatize women, resulting in wage penalties, lower performance evaluations, and fewer promotions.

The elevation of a woman to a major party candidate will not, of course, eliminate all barriers.  Nor will her possible election.  It would be negligent, however, if we waste the opportunity to address, consider, and debate the issue of persistent gender bias in how we conceptualize and actualize leadership in business organizations and elsewhere.


[2] https://hbr.org/2013/09/women-rising-the-unseen-barriers

About The Author

Bert A. Spector

Bert A. Spector (PhD, American History) is Associate Professor of International Business and Management at Northeastern University's D'Amore-McKim School of Business. His research ...

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