Topics related to female leadership and the development of women’s careers have found little space in academic debate until the late 1980s. It is only then that the “glass ceiling” metaphor is created and that academic literature begins to question gender discrimination that limits women’s career advancement, in particular in senior positions.
More recently, the image of this invisible barrier has been substituted with that of a labyrinth that symbolises the complexities of the challenges that women currently face in their careers. The path that leads to the centre of a labyrinth does exist, but in order to reach it, women are required to make greater efforts and show greater perseverance than their male counterparts.
Sara Bonesso is a professor of Business Organisation and Human Resources Management at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and vice-director of the Ca’ Foscari Competency Centre, while Laura Cortellazzo is a researcher at the Department of Management and member of the Ca’ Foscari Competency Centre. Together, they have analysed the evolution of academic literature written over the last four decades on female leadership and female career trajectories, in an attempt to identify the main topics that have characterised relevant debates and interpret them adopting different levels of analysis — namely the individual, the organisational, and the societal levels.
Bonesso and Cortellazzo analysed over 300 academic papers containing over 926,000 words using the topic modelling technique. It is a mathematical model that uses machine learning to identify recurrent patterns among the words in a text corpus. This technique can enable the analysis of vast corpora and lead to the identification of words that are often used together. Once the algorithm has identified the nature and the number of topics contained in the data set, these can be classified and analysed.
The study found 12 main topic-based themes that are treated in academic literature, as well as some interesting trends.
The individual level
On an individual level, the personal characteristics of female leaders have been scrutinised over the past few decades, but more recently the increasing number of women in positions of great responsibility has enabled researchers to highlight the absence of distinctive traits between the two genders in conducting effective leadership. However, because of widespread gender-based stereotypes, women tend to show some traits more than others — they tend to show less confidence in their ability to build a career, have limited aspirations to leadership roles, display a tendency to show some behaviour that in a mainly male contexts are more desirable compared to others, as well as greater risk aversion compared to their male colleagues. On the other hand, the results also show that women are more likely to obtain leadership in moments of general uncertainty and greater risk. This “glass cliff” phenomenon reinforces discriminatory behaviour that leads to the association of female leadership with disastrous performances.
The organisational level
On an organisational level, the study shows that there are practices that either promote or inhibit women’s career progression. For example, career progression is fostered by so-called “development relationships”, i.e., the social relationships established in networks inside or outside of the organisation and in mentoring programmes, that enable women to give greater visibility to their competences for professional advancement.
On the other hand, factors that have a negative impact on gender equality in organisational culture include “unconscious gender bias” — second-generation gender stereotypes that are applied unconsciously in performance and career evaluation processes for women. Thus, when women display behaviour that is perceived to be in contrast with stereotypical gender traits, their career potential is regarded as lower than that of their male counterparts.
The societal level
The study shows that the media are crucial to the establishment of the traits that are attributed to leading figures. Articles show that, on average, female leaders tend to have less visibility than their male counterparts, and are therefore less likely to be publicly recognised and to have their voice heard in society.
“Benevolent sexism” can present women as “weaker” than men and suggest that they “need to be protected”. This message limits women’s right to show themselves as strong leaders. Some studies have even shown that society plays a relevant role in the process of collective gender identity change. For example, being exposed to successful role models leads women to become more resilient to stereotypes and to modify their self-perception, progressively associating it with roles that traditionally were not attributed to women. Families also contribute to shaping these identities. On the one hand, in patriarchal societies families tend to reinforce the idea that women should be homemakers, while on the other hand, a family’s prestige and network can also favour women’s career.
“This multilevel analysis reveals a complicated picture according to which many factors still hinder the achievement of gender equality when it comes to the career advancement of women,” says Professor Bonesso. “Research conducted so far is very descriptive and thus can offer limited insight into the actions that need to be taken in order to favour an inclusive culture in leadership programmes. Recent data indicates that the involvement of both men and women in decision-making processes inside organisations improves performance and innovation. Academic research can further debunk the myths that stereotypes have contributed to building over time. Research can reinforce the notion that effective leadership is based on one’s competence, not on one’s gender.