Barriers for Women to Positions of Power: How Societal and Corporate Structures, Perceptions of Leadership and Discrimination Restrict Women's Advancement to Authority

By Dee-Ann Schwanke
Earth Common Journal
2013, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

Women’s Responses to Barriers

Women can perpetuate the barriers to their advancement by choosing to respond to difficulty in unhelpful ways. If a woman sees or experiences a barrier, she may respond by internalizing it inappropriately, by rationalizing it through sensemaking, or by avoiding the career altogether. Conversely, the perception that women do not advance because they shrink from opportunity, a choice termed the “ambition gap,” is a myth (Lang, 2012, para 2).

When women experience discrimination in the workplace, particularly ongoing subtle forms of discrimination, they tend to internalize the incidents and take responsibility for what went wrong. This is because women in senior positions tend to hold to high standards of meritocracy, the belief that circumstances are largely a result of one’s own actions (Barreto, Ellemers, Cihangier, & Stroebe, 2009, p. 110). The subtle discrimination that is more prevalent today lowers self-esteem. Women in these situations observe implied or vague barriers such as being ignored, overlooked, or resisted. When this happens, they try to figure out what went wrong and take personal responsibility for the incident. This approach does not address the underlying issue if their treatment comes from a colleague or if a superior is discriminating against them in subtle ways, such as not inviting them to a meeting, ignoring them in a conversation, or overlooking a suggestion. If a superior discriminates against them in blatant ways, on the other hand, such as making overt statements that women belong in certain roles or restricting educational development to men, the discrimination is easier to resist (Barreto, Ellemers, Cihangier, & Stroebe, 2009, p. 109). Reduced confidence in their abilities perpetuates women’s feelings of inferiority and creates a self-fulfilling effect.

Additionally, studies into women’s response to breaks in the corporate contract show interesting facts on how women respond to barriers. Corporate contracts are the unwritten beliefs held by employees about what has been promised to them by their employers, such as increasing pay, job security, training, and promotion (Hamel, 2009, p. 235). Sensemaking involves the rationalizing of incongruent information and events (p. 235). Research has found that women who are treated unfairly, particularly when the anticipated advancement or increased compensation is not actualized, will seek information, make attribution for the barriers, make sense of the incongruence, then act in one of four ways. According to Hamel (2009, p. 250), these actions are to leave quietly, leave while voicing their objections to the discrimination, remain at work and be silent, or remain at work and try to raise awareness to the problem. Although the latter is best to initiate potential change, it is also the most difficult and the least frequent choice. The vast majority of women, 90%, leave quietly, which perpetuates any unresolved issues within their work environments.

A perspective of this unwillingness to raise awareness about difficult work environments is flagged by Linda Robertson, a lawyer in Vancouver, who writes a blog about legal issues in Canada. In a post from November 15, 2010, she contends that women tend to foster harmony in the workplace and resist asking for raises so that they will not jeopardize their positions. She also discusses a gender bias in which a woman who advocates on her own behalf is seen by her colleagues as pushy and overbearing (Robertson, 2010, para 5).

Finally, another way that women respond to barriers is by avoiding careers in which a higher rate of stereotyping or discrimination will occur. These tend to be male-dominated industries, particularly those that involve skills that are traditionally considered male strengths. Math and science careers are included in this category. Women who experience insecurity about or disparaging reviews of their ability to perform mathematical and scientific tasks choose careers that avoid these tasks (Zhang, Schmader, & Forbes, 2009, p. 134). Many of these are lucrative careers, so women’s absences from them contribute to the compensation gap between the genders.

A recent argument that women do not advance because they do not try is called the “ambition gap,” the perceived propensity for women to choose family before work or to shrink from opportunity. This argument has been discredited by Catalyst’s report entitled, “The myth of the ideal worker: Does doing all the right things really get women ahead? (Carter & Silva, 2011, p. 2). The study involved over 3,000 MBA graduates who stayed on a traditional career path and did not take leave for education, personal or family reasons. It summarized the myth that women did not ask for promotions with this statement, “Women were more likely than men to ask for a variety of skill-building experiences, to proactively seek training opportunities, and to make achievements visible, including asking for feedback and promotions” (p. 11). These actions were not, however, reflected in their advancement. The men and women in the research group who actively pursued advancement found different results. Twice as many men advanced to senior executive levels as women. Further, the researchers found little difference between the women who actively requested advancement and those who were less proactive in their efforts, unlike men who found significant advancement by asking for it (p. 11).


Although women are generally perceived to have made great strides towards equality in achieving senior positions, the fact remains that women still do not share equal representation in these roles. Executive women are atypical. Complex, pervasive and ongoing barriers limit the progress of millions of women who wish to move into positions of power. The structural, prejudicial, and discriminatory hurdles these women face are often subtle and misunderstood, creating a complex, pervasive, and multi-faceted labyrinth that thwarts any progress they may make. To correct this imbalance, corporations must distinguish the research from the myths and act accordingly.


Barreto, M., Ellemers, N., Cihangier, S., & Stroebe, K. (2009). The self-fulfilling effects of contemporary sexism: how it affects women's well-being and behavior. In M. Barreto, M. K. Ryan, & M. Schmitt (Eds.), The glass ceiling in the 21st century: Understanding barriers to gender equality (pp. 99-123). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Barreto, M., Ryan, M., & Schmitt, M. (2009). Introduction: Is the glass ceiling still relevant in the 21st century? In M. Barreto, M. Ryan, & M. Schmitt (Eds.), The glass ceiling in the 21st century: Understanding barriers to gender equality (pp. 3-19). Washington, DC: Americal Psychological Association.

Broughton, A., & Miller, L. (2009). Women in senior management: Is the glass ceiling still intact? Is, Guc: The Journal of Industrial Relations & Human Resources, 11(4), 7-23. doi:10.4026/1303-2860.2009.0122.x

Carter, N. M., & Silva, C. (2011). The Myth of the ideal worker: Does doing all the right things really get women ahead? Catalyst. Retrieved from really-get-women-ahead

Catalyst. (2007). 2006 Catalyst census of women in Fortune 500 corporte officer and board positions. Retrieved from corporate-officers-and-top-earners-fortune-500

Cikara, M., & Fiske, S. (2009). Warmth, competence, and ambivalent sexism: Vertical assault and collateral damage. In M. Barreto, M. Ryan, & M. Schmitt (Eds.), The glass ceiling in the 21st century: Understanding barriers to gender equality (pp. 73-96). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Collin, P. H. (2006). Dictionary of business. London, UK: A & C Black.

Eagly, A., & Mladinic, A. (1994). Are people prejudiced against women? Some answers from research on attiutdes, gender stereotypes, and judgments of competence. European Review of Social Psychology, 5, 1-35.

Eagly, A., & Sczesny, S. (2009). Stereotypes about women, men and leaders: Have times changed? In M. Barreto, M. Ryan, & M. Schmitt (Eds.), The glass ceiling in the 21st century: Understanding barriers to gender equality (pp. 21-48). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Frenkiel, N. (1984, March). The Up-and-Comers; Bryant Takes Aim At the Settlers-In.

Adweek Special Report. Source: Cornell University Catherwood Library (2005, January). Retrieved from

Gage, D. (2012, May 22). Kleiner Perkins partner sues for gender discrimination. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from html?mod=googlenews_wsj

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Guerrero, L. (2011). Women and leadership. In W. Rowe, & L. Guerrero (Eds.), Cases in leadership (pp. 380-412). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAFE Publications.

Hamel, S. (2009). Exit, voice, and sensemaking following psychological contract violations. Journal of Business Communication, 46(2), 234-261.

Harris, M. (1991). Cultural anthropology (3rd ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Human capital. In Canadian Oxford Dictionary. (2005). Retrieved from

Knight, R. (2011, June 27). Queen bee in the office: Who gets stung? [Web blog post] Retrieved from the-office-who-gets-stung/#axzz1wFoZTOae

Lachance-Grzela, M., & Bouchard, G. (2010). Why do women do the lion's share of housework? A decade of research. Sex Roles, 63(11/12), 767-780. doi:10.1007/s11199-010-9797-z

Lang, I. H. (2012, January 6). The myth of the ambition gap. Forbes. Retrieved from ambition-gap/

Robertson, L. (2010, Nov 15). The Gender Compensation Gap. Retrieved from

Rosener, J. B. (2008). Ways women lead. In T. Donaldson, & P. H. Werhane (Eds.), Ethical issues in business: A philisophical approach (8th ed., pp. 411-419). Upper Saddle River,NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Rudman, L., & Heppen, J. (2003). Implicit romantic fantasies and women's interest in personal power: A glass slipper effect? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1357-1370.

Ryan, M., & Haslam, S. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over- represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16, 81-90.

Schmitt, M., Spoor, J., Danaher, K., & Branscombe, N. (2009). Rose colored glasses: how tokenism and comparisons with the past reduce the visibility of gender inequality. In M. Barreto, M. K. Ryan, & M. Schmitt (Eds.), The glass ceiling in the 21st century: Understanding barriers to gender equality (pp. 49-71). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Simpson, R. (1997). Have times changed? Career barriers and the token woman manager. British Journal of Management, 8(2), S121-S130.

Stelter, N. Z. (2002). Gender differences in leadership: Current social issues and future organizational implications. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 8(4), 88-99.

The Canadian Press. (2012, May 29). RCMP commissioner says red tape prevents him from weeding out bad apples quickly. Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved from him-from-weeding-out-bad-apples-quickly/

Townsend, B. (1996). Room at the top for women. American Demographics, 18(7), 28-37. White, E. (2012, Mar 12). Ten sensible tips to achieve work life balance. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: balance/article2364444/

Zhang, S., Schmader, T., & Forbes, C. (2009). The effects of gender stereotypes on women's career choice: Opening the glass door. In M. Barreto, M. Ryan, & M. Schmitt (Eds.), The glass ceiling in the 21st century: Understanding barriers to gender equality (pp. 125-150). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

“Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation—not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed... MORE»
The most commonly cited statistic for the gender wage gap in the United States is that women earn seventy-eight cents to every dollar men earn. A great deal of contention however, surrounds the interpretation of this measure as well as others seeking to quantify the gender wage gap. While the number solely represents full-time men... MORE»
One may contend that attaining unadulterated awareness of one’s existence is, in present society, idealistic. Specifically, such achievement is unlikely if, in the midst of oppressive forces, one rests in a state of... MORE»
Fun. Creative. Engaging. These adjectives may come to mind when thinking of the best places to work. But what makes a company culture successful? This study evaluated internal communications in companies deemed "Best Places to Work" by the Triangle Business Journal and its influence on corporate culture. Interviews with five professionals... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in Women's & Gender Studies

2022, Vol. 14 No. 10
The label of ‘science’ or ‘biology’ can become somewhat of a trump-card in excluding trans people from civil rights, because many scientific (and pseudo-scientific) opinions are weaponized during transgender rights debates... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 09
Perceptions of menstruation as a taboo subject have historically characterized Western and non-Western societies alike and persist today, both perpetuating harmful cultural understandings of women’s abilities and normalizing institutional... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 03
Using content analysis, this article focuses on the portrayal of female prisoners in the first two seasons of the Netflix show Orange is the New Black (OITNB). There are two main findings. First, the word "lesbian" frequently signals homophobia... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 11
This paper investigates the convoluted societal processes to which the individual is exposed from an early age in order to form and acquire their sense of identity, and aims at dismantling these very processes by exhibiting their flimsy and unsubstantiated... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
Centuries of subjugation under Spanish and American colonial rule have embedded an idealistic view of white beauty in the minds of Filipinos. It continues to be deeply rooted in Philippine culture due to the constant exposure of Filipina bodies... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
This paper explores the woman’s body as a site of sanctity and disgust in the film Rosemary’s Baby. The character of Rosemary Woodhouse is depicted as a pure, virtuous, and feminine figure. She is positioned against other corrupted,... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
Conversations about the gender expression of young children are often characterized by confusion, as parents, educators, and even child psychologists have a hard time determining where exactly children’s strong gendered beliefs and behaviors... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


Finding Balance in Graduate School
The Career Value of the Humanities & Liberal Arts
How to Manage a Group Project (Video)