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.


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