Women have traditionally held the vast majority of responsibility in the home: child-rearing, cooking, cleaning and overall management of family responsibilities. In most regions of the world, this still remains the case. In some regions of the world – namely industrialized nations and more recently other nations – this has changed. In addition to carrying the majority of responsibility in the home, women have also begun taking positions within organizations, whether public, private or not-for-profit (NFP), and these women have contributed greatly in terms of economic growth and prosperity.

However, although women make up 50% of the population and more women than men graduate from university in many regions, women are not equally represented in our workforce, and even less at the leadership level.

In fact, Catalyst has found that:

“High potential women advance more slowly than their male peers, in terms of both career progression and pay, even though they employ career management strategies similar to men’s”. 

This is particularly true in management, senior management, leadership, chief executive and board positions where the percentage of female participation tapers off as the roles become more senior, for reasons that will be explored through literature review below.

I’ve researched and written this article for three reasons:

  • First, from an egalitarian perspective, everyone, including women, should have access to and support for the same opportunities. Yes it is true that not all women want to participate in the workforce, and even those that do may not want leadership positions. However, those that do want to participate and rise through the ranks should receive the same support, opportunity and pay that their male colleagues do. Research, as outlined in the literature review, indicates that this is not currently the case. In fact, the World Economic Forum published a report which found that if we continue at our current pace, it will take 170 years to close both the gender wage gap and employment opportunity gap for men and women.
  •  Second, there is significant organizational benefit to increasing the number of women in the workforce, and specifically in leadership positions. McKinsey & Company, through their Women Matter series, has found the following benefits to increasing the number of women in leadership positions: increasing diversity of thought on the leadership team, better decision-making, better corporate performance, and organizations that are good at retaining talented women, are also good at retaining talented men.
  • Third, in addition to organizational benefit, there is also the potential for significant global economic benefit. Catalyst has found that ensuring equal male and female representation in the workplace globally would increase the global annual GDP by $28 trillion by 2025. In North America and Oceania specifically, adding more women to the workforce would translate to an 11% increase in national GDP.

In the media

High profile figures such as Sheryl Sandberg, Hilary Clinton, and most recently the #metoo movement, have brought the topic of women in the workforce and in leadership to the forefront.

We have seen some high profile scandals around women at work, i.e., Uber with allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment that eventually led to the CEO’s resignation, and the 10 page anti-diversity memo written and distributed by a Googleengineer who was fired shortly after. And who can forget Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, R. Kelly and their trail of accusers. (For a recent and comprehensive list of men who are facing sexual harassment allegations, click here.)

Given the importance of and the recent rise of this topic, it’s no surprise that women at work and in leadership has become an important area of focus for academics, governments, organizations, boards and those that lead them.

Academic Studies tell us a lot

A ton of research has been conducted around the world on women in the workforce, and women in leadership. This research focuses on the current state of women at work (by region, by country and by organization), the barriers to women entering leadership positions, the legislative and policy measures put in place to counter them, the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of these measures and last, recommendations to help change the mindset, culture and reduce barriers to women at work, and in entering leadership positions.

The literature review below covers both women at work and women in leadership, with emphasis on Australia, the US and Europe, and looks at women at work from two main perspectives: culture & identity in the workplace, and legislation & policy. It begins with a summary of different academic literature on women at work/in leadership, summarizes the common themes amongst them, and ends with a question that I’d love your thoughts on.

Culture & Identity in the Workplace

Through Marie Chisholm-Burns and colleagues’ exploration of “Women in leadership and the bewildering glass ceiling” they discuss the current state of women and the many barriers that contribute to the glass ceiling as an invisible barrier that sometimes lead to women self-selecting out of the leadership pipelineThis includes the “double burden” that women face due to the fact that male characteristics are commonly associated with leadership, and as the standard by which women are hired, promoted and retained.

They have found that since

“typically female characteristics are devalued”women are challenged by the double burden which forces them to not only perform well, but to also fight stereotypes about their leadership potential. 

Similarly, Robyn Walker and Jolanta Aritz find that masculine cultures prevent women from thriving in the workplace. They conducted a case study of 3 different groups (mixed gender, with a different blend in each of the 3 groups) solving a “survival” activity at a business school. They analyzed the discourse amongst the groups, and found that even when women employed leadership traits that are appreciated in men, they are ignored. This article emphasized the need to change the mindset around both men and women at work, including the predominantly masculine culture which is accepted as the norm.

Highlighting the importance and impact of culture on leadership perceptions and the role of women in the workplace, Laura Hickman explored young men’s expectations of female leaders and cited a study which found that although millennial men self-identified as not having a negative bias towards women, when shown a picture of a boardroom table with one man and one woman sitting at either endin all but one case, they assumed the man to be the leaderAlthough they claim no bias, the millennial men believe that their identification follows cultural norms that men are traditionally considered leaders. To further reinforce the claim of no bias, most of the young men said that they would have no problem with a female boss, and many expressed this passionatelyHowever, when asked to describe leadership characteristics, all but one of the study subjects used male pronouns, further emphasizing that culturally, male behaviour is still largely the accepted norm – even in the open-minded and progressive millennial generation.

While researching the Impostor Phenomenon (IP)Sanford, Ross, Black and Cambinofound that most of the 29 women interviewed self-identified as not suffering from IP, and attributed this confidence in their ability to mentors, other women in leadership and supportive romantic partners. Therefore, they found that what’s important in developing and growing confidence in oneself as a leader, is support through interpersonal relationships. Women who face Impostor Phenomenon should seek out the support of mentors (for opportunity/advice/belief), other women in leadership (for recognition, guidance and understanding challenges) and last, supportive romantic partners (for courage, confirmation, comfort, and who share household responsibilities). Interestingly, the organization can play a huge role in supporting and encouraging these relationships, highlighting the importance of organizational support in women’s workplace success.

Legislation & Policy

Alice Klettner and colleagues explore the effects of mandatory gender equality regulation versus a softer approach such as making it a part of corporate governance or organizational strategy. They argue that governments cannot mandate cultural changeas proven through the example of Norway where the government has mandated the requirement that 40% of board members must be women – and that Norway’s mandated requirement did not translate into improving the number of women in organizational leadership.

On the topic of policy and quota, Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli foundthat culture is what makes the difference in the effectiveness of policies that are legislated by the government and by organizations in supporting women to enter leadership positions at the organization and board level. They find that women can reach leadership positions in both tight and loose cultures (defined by the extent to which a culture has “strong norms and low tolerance for deviance”), but that the way this is supported differs – i.e., tight cultures require structured and enforced approaches such as quotas with penalties, while loose cultures may be more successful when organizations use examples of successful female leaders. Loose cultures like Canada, Australia and the United States may even fight back when measures such as mandatory quotas are imposed.

Marian Baird, Rae Cooper and Meraiah Foley in their paper “Women at Work: Australia and the United States examine the current state of female workforce participation in both countries. They found that maternal employment participation in the Australian labour force is primarily made up of part-time work, that this is preferred by Australian women, and that “…41% of women working 35 hours per week or more indicated they would prefer to work fewer hours…” The opposite is true for maternal employment in the US. Through analysis of several dimensions of the current state, the authors recommend practical approaches to what organizations can do to increase women’s ability and desire to participate and succeed in full-time employment: set internal gender targets, conduct an internal gender pay audit, expand mainstream flexibility, help employees access and pay for child care, build leadership capabilities and pathways, and raise investor awareness & capitalize on pressure.

Another study by Marian Baird and Rae Cooper focused on the “right to request” flexible work arrangement policies as legislated by government versus their actual practice in organizations, and found that although these policies exist, the implementation varies depending on manager and there are 3 main organizational barriers: knowledge deficits, informal application of policies, and other organizational policies in direct conflict. This finding further emphasizes the importance of organizational support for women in the workplace, and the gap or disconnect between governmental and organizational policy/legislation and practice. It is one thing to recommend or write the policy, and an entirely different thing to implement it effectively.

Although not an academic study, the results research I worked on while working at Knowledge Group – GCC Women in the Workforce: Status, Challenges & Aspirations – agree with much of what is stated throughout the academic literature review. In the GCC, local governments show huge support for advancing women in the workplace. Despite this support, 66.1% of GCC women who responded to the survey believe that women face barriers in entering leadership positions, and believe that the number one way to help remove these barriers is to change the mindset around the role of women in the workplaceIn addition, and similar to Baird and Cooper’s findings, informal discussions with female leaders unearthed that although there is strong government support for women at work, there is a gap between mandated policy and practice in the workplace.

Throughout this literature review and research, three main themes emerged:

First, research has shown that organizations with mixed-gender leadership teams see a number of benefits. This includes better corporate performance, better decision-making, less groupthink and the ability to better retain talent (both female and male).

Second, most research reviewed indicated that culture – both national and organizational – is an important determinant in women’s ability to succeed at work and in leadership. Specifically,

  • National and organizational cultures can and do affect the ability (positively or negatively) of women at work, and in entering and succeeding in leadership positions.
  • Although women participate in the workplace, there are barriers that sometimes lead them to work part-time, turn down leadership positions or completely self-select out.
  • Both national and organizational culture, in general, do not adequately support the development of women at work. For example, there is a lack of support around unique needs of women at work, such as child rearing, access to flexible work arrangements, and cultural norms around male and female behaviour.
  • In organizational culture, there is still a belief that masculine traits make good leadership, and that these traits are not viewed positively if women exhibit them. As a result of this, women face a double burden of both proving their competence and overcoming stereotypes.

Last, many governments and organizations do recognize that supporting women at work is a priority, that doing so does result in significant benefit, and that it is also the right thing to do. As such, they have instituted legislation and policies that are meant to support women in the workplace, such as maternity/parental leave, anti-discrimination policies and the right to request flexible work arrangements, to name a few. However, although these legislation and policies exist, there is a gap between policy and practice which is preventing access to this support, and ultimately preventing the success of women in the workplace.

Therefore, although we, organizations and governments agree that we should support women at work, we have not yet been able to effectively do so. In order to push this agenda forward, cultural change, both nationally and in the organization is necessary.

Specifically, moving organizational cultures from more masculine to balanced cultures, ensuring policies that are created are actually practiced, and to ensure that organizations are promoting women because they see the benefit, not to reach a mandated quota.


  • Lisa Gulesserian

    Learning, people, career development and women at work

    I'm a learning & people development professional with a focus on leadership development and a passion for research around supporting women at work. I write about career, diversity and personal development with the goal of helping those around me get the most they can out of where they spend most of their time - at work!