Women in Top Management: Broken Ladders and Human Rights

November 7, 2013 • Editors' Pick, LEADERSHIP, Women in Leadership


Women are still tokens in the corporate C-suite. In fact, many countries have static levels of female participation in top management – between 10% and 20% – despite an ever-growing talent pool.  Below, Karsten Jonsen argues the importance of gender diversity in the workplace, and considers what is holding women back.

Barriers to Gender Equality in the C-Suite

We have a long-standing romantic ideal that leaders are heroic, larger than life, aggressive, agentic males that control the environment and create game-changing visions – the late Steve Jobs was a case in point. In addition, there are well-documented psychological mechanisms in play for why men prefer to choose men for leadership positions, e.g. the similarity attraction paradigm and basic uncertainty reduction.1 Because men are in the driver’s seat, sponsoring and selecting their successors, we basically get homosocial reproduction: a system that men are best able to benefit from.

Women often work double-shifts, i.e. taking care of both career and household. When both are not working well, they tend to fall victim to retreat syndrome and focus on one area. And it often makes economic sense for families to focus on the career of the man, because his chances of success are much higher, and this decision is substantiated by the ongoing wage gaps that are currently widening in some countries, especially due to men’s higher bonuses.2

Moreover, many corporations still have old-school policies, biases, and processes when it comes to work-life balance, evaluations, talent-spotting and especially promotions, which are often made by homogeneous elite groups3 that are not trained in group relations, power dynamics or inclusive behaviours. Many of the above reasons are vividly described in books such as Tough Choices, and Lean In. They tell the stories of women who have made it to the very top of the tech world despite all odds. What they fail to tell us is that these brilliant women still played by the old rules of intense networking, very long work hours, ruthless behaviours and meritocracy.

Meritocracy, a widely held axiom, is a wonderful aspirational ideal, but it does not create equality per se! Appointing ‘the best’ leaders regardless of circumstances feels good and has some face value but may indeed maintain the status quo. Things do not happen in a contextual vacuum and overly strong beliefs in meritocracy only legitimise the superiority of groups that have been historically advantaged. And the illusion we have of significant individual social mobility provides justification for existing differences.4 After all, who sets the definition of ‘merit’? In some highly paid working cultures, described as tribal male brotherhoods, merit equals 70-80 hour workweeks, or more, and vacation has become stigmatised.5 Wall Street is a case in point with 54% of the workers being female, yet 0% are CEOs.6 As acknowledged recently by Harvard University, the competitive behaviours and informal masculine activities of these power systems are more deep-seated and grounded in long standing social capital than any short-term social engineering can overcome.7

While we perceive the leadership behaviour of males and females to be different, it is, in fact, not all that different when we look at actual behaviour.

Paradoxically Speaking

Women are different from men, and popular literature has made big money from inflating the differences. Yet research shows a different picture: While we perceive the leadership behaviour of males and females to be different, it is, in fact, not all that different when we look at actual behaviour. Before sorting out what to do about gender diversity in the top-management ranks, there needs to be agreement about these differences because the remedies for progression are very different depending on the belief.8 Do we cater to the differences or do we not, in our systems, policies and structures?

We say that modern leaders need to be transformational, empathetic and people-oriented, and they should mentor and develop their subordinates – all things that women are no worse at than men. Indeed, many would argue they are better at them and thus have a so-called female leadership advantage.9 Women take care and men take charge.10 Yet, is that description of a modern leader really true at the very top level of an organisation? Do qualities of kindness, people caring and empathy ring true for the Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdochs and Carly Fiorinas of this world? Not so.

Moreover, women have a classic dilemma: They act femininely according to the dictates of gender expectations, which results in them not being seen as having typical leadership qualities. Or, they act with what are considered to be leadership qualities, and risk being perceived as unfeminine she-wolves. As most organisations keep traditional ways of remunerating and promoting leaders, this dilemma will not be solved easily.

There are usually only 1 or 2 token women on top management teams; often it takes at least 3 women to change dynamics and reap the true benefits of diversity in teams.

When Women Break Through the Barriers

Does everything change when there is a woman at the top of an organisation or a country? Not necessarily! There is surprisingly little evidence of spillover effects, and besides, ‘gender-solidarity’ is not stronger for women than for men.11 The fact that some countries have many female politicians, ministers and even prime ministers does not mean that the business world matches this distribution. This can of course be explained by the limited size of the talent pool, when we apply conventional lenses where profit and loss experience and expatriation assignments are a minimum requirement for advancement. But lack of changes also happens because there are usually only one or two token women on top management teams and boards; often it takes at least three women to fundamentally change dynamics and reap the true benefits of diversity in teams12 (but one or two is always a good start).

Tokenism is an important factor in where we are today and why we may not get much further anytime soon. What happens is that minority achievements are diminished by the underrepresentation of minority persons in majority-dominated work groups. The successful tokens, those who make it to the top of corporations, offer glimpses of hope and optimism for other women, and they could serve as agents of change. Yet it often does not happen as they ascribe their achievements to individual normative action and meritocracy, identifying with the dominant group of male managers, and thus ignoring calls for gender discrimination. One female CEO mentioned recently in an interview that she was ‘not noticing’ gender. Have we lost a generation of women negating gender issues? Besides, it is normal, unfortunately, that people who overcome discrimination perceive themselves as non-prototypical of their group. Tokens (in this case female leaders) often fear competition of two kinds: individually, i.e. if the other woman is better than me, and collectively, i.e. if the other woman is not good, it will damage the reputation of my gender.13 At the same time, the token women provide a sense of justice and fairness among both men and women, and in particular those in power as they have helped reduce inequality.

Therefore, the status quo is bound to prevail.14


Who Takes Action?

Nobody! If most male leaders passively acquiesce, that leaves women to do much of the work, but they lack the power and social status to do so effectively. And women do not widely protest their status, as ‘speaking up’ about these matters is socially undesirable, let alone the fact that many of us, after all, want to believe (in the illusion) that the world is fair.15 Since the issues span from individual psychology to societal structures (including childcare and elder care), we seem to have a diffusion of responsibility. In essence, when it is everybody’s responsibility, it becomes nobody’s responsibility. Voluntary action has not worked well, and we are not sure whose problem this is: the individual’s, businesses’ or society’s. We have a social dilemma on our hands.16

Gender diversity in the boardroom and the upper echelons of management is a zero-sum contest. Thus, from a group-perspective, when territory is taken away from one gender (men) and given to another gender (women), there will naturally be resistance,17 which is one of the reasons why social changes are considered a painful process and not easily made. Remember that, ultimately, this is all about distribution of wealth and entrenched rights, status, dominance and power. Remember that people in top management earn 200-400 times as much money per year than the average worker.

The resistance of the establishment can be blatant, or it can take more subtle forms. The latter prevails as political correctness increases and organisations are expected to espouse tolerant values. Take for example the appointment of chief diversity officers (CDOs), something that almost all Fortune 500 companies have today. In the United States, CDOs often report to the board level or directly to the CEO, and they are competitively sought after; in Europe, however, they traditionally rank much lower in the hierarchy. To add insult to injury, several of the largest European-based corporations have recently appointed CDOs with no diversity experience whatsoever. This practice is not likely to happen in marketing or finance. Leading diversity and inclusion takes real skill. Has diversity come to be perceived as a risk-free playground for talent development? What does this say about real commitment to diversity?

Corporations have an increasingly important role to play in ensuring the promotion of gender diversity as a human right, and some experts are pushing for greater corporate accountability beyond posting endless credos and fairly identical codes of conduct.

Is There a Business Case for Diversity?

Has Apple become one of the most successful companies on the planet because of a diverse top management team? Volkswagen? Samsung? Ouch! Exceptions aside, the business case has been very difficult to prove, due to causality issues (what comes first, diversity or good results) and because of the ‘glass-cliff’ effect where some female leaders and CEOs are appointed when the company’s situation is risky.18 Another important factor is that most managers and team leaders are (still) not trained to lead diverse teams, so the gains of diversity are often offset by increased conflicts and divergent processes.19 Or, imagine a company outsourcing diversity altogether so that creativity is performed by suppliers or business partners (such as IDEO)! A fundamental problem is that if we turn diversity into a business case with utilitarian arguments, then we may be shooting ourselves in the foot because we thereby eliminate the more Kantian fairness and ethical aspects of the matter. If there is no business case, should we then reject diversity? Or to put it differently, if there is a business case for discrimination, should we accept it? Was there a business case to abolish slavery?

A rarely talked about issue is one of competition for resources, also within diversity departments. When companies have scarce resources in terms of people and managerial attention, they are often forced to choose between focusing on different kinds of diversity. So even if the business case for gender diversity is perceived as good, it can be trumped by an even better case, e.g. cultural diversity, especially when geographical expansion is a strategic priority.

Why not focus on both gender and cultural diversity? Although many kinds of diversity are needed for organisations to thrive, and for innovation in particular, high levels of both cultural and gender diversity can cause serious issues, e.g. conflict. It is somewhat like walking in two directions at the same time. An unpublished study of over 10,000 teams revealed detrimental effects when teams have a mix of gender and cultural diversity. Not only because many managers are not equipped to deal with the ‘interesting’ and conflictual team dynamics this mix can create, but also because gender diversity is simply disliked by many traditionalists. A European-based CDO explained to me recently that when gender diversity is discussed, it creates far more emotional opposition than cultural diversity in many companies; she sees the battle for more women in top positions as an über-conflict. This may be caused by the perceived threat that well-established social structures will be upset. Including those within our own families, where it all starts, and where most of us live with and within gender-discriminating patterns. Not only is the sharing of workloads and responsibilities at home a prerequisite for many women to have a real choice,20 but many men are ‘afraid’ of successful high-income women. A recent study concluded that men feel subconsciously worse about themselves when their female partner succeeds than when she fails.21 Ironic, because spousal support from an equal partner is one element that many successful corporate women identify as key to their careers.


Is Gender Diversity a Human Rights Issue?

The short answer to this question is yes! The wording of well-established UN agreements varies greatly, yet the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women is surprisingly clear.22 The purpose of this convention is ‘to enlarge our understanding of human rights’ and ‘to provide a framework for challenging the various forces that have created and sustained discrimination based upon sex’. This includes ensuring the right to the same employment opportunities, remuneration and benefits (article 11). The convention prescribes taking all appropriate measures to ‘modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and all customary practices that are based on the idea of the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women’ (article 5a). Already 25 years ago, this was signed by over 100 United Nations member states!

Most managers are not trained to lead diverse teams, so the gains of diversity are often offset by increased conflicts.

The problem is that under human rights law, states are the actors that are bound to ensure that people can enjoy their human rights, not corporations. The general principles of business and human rights speak about the state’s obligation to protect and fulfill human rights, and that business enterprises should comply with all laws and respect human rights, even when faced with conflicting requirements.23 Corporations have an increasingly important role to play in ensuring the promotion of gender diversity as a human right, and some experts are pushing for greater corporate accountability beyond posting endless credos and fairly identical codes of conduct on fairly identical web-sites displaying fairly identical values.

These ‘broken ladders’, and women’s access to wealth and power are important. The broader question is, however: Do women have the same opportunities as men to participate in labor markets in the first place and are women as empowered to contribute fully to global economic growth and prosperity?24 The answer is no! New forms of game-changing capitalism may arise – must arise – in which ecological concerns and human rights become naturally embedded in our ways of managing corporations and planet Earth: where individuals reflect on and change their own behaviours, and where organisations and countries collaborate on fixing some of the structural problems as a way to lift GDP and reinstall sustainable growth in old Europe.

It is mindboggling to observe how most governments are not using their new ownership status in the financial sector to ensure a better gender balance.

After decades of research and good-willed efforts, we can conclude that boarding the bus of gender-diversity requires a ticket to ride simply not available in practice, and homogamy prevails. Men are not required by law to give up a seat on the board for a woman, yet. Politicians may overturn this, and the EU could soon be walking their quota-talk. Yet, it is mindboggling to observe how most governments are not using their new ownership status in the financial sector to ensure a better gender balance in boards and top management. In fact, the 13 top (male) bankers who met with the US government (2009) in order to be ‘saved’, after causing the financial crisis in the first place, were explicitly promised that there would be no interference in the management of the banks or their board membership and compositions.25 In essence, we end up in a paradoxical situation where governments sign human rights declarations with one hand and do not use the other hand to ensure it matters via their ownership in companies. Talk about ‘wasting a crisis’.

About the Author

Karsten Jonsen is a Research Fellow in Organizational Behaviour and International Management at IMD, Switzerland. He earned his M.Sc. in Economics from CBS in Copenhagen, MBA from ESCP-EAP in Paris, France and a Ph.D. from the University of Geneva. His work has been published in Journal of International Business, Journal of Management Inquiry, International Journal of Conflict Management, Human Relations and British Journal of Management, and in numerous books. Dr. Jonsen has served as advisor to large corporations in the field of workforce diversity and he was the winner of the Carolyn Dexter Award for best international research paper at the Academy of Management 2010.


1.Kanter, R.M. (1977). Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books.
2.The National Management Salary Survey by The Chartered Management Institute in the United Kingdom was compiled data from more than 43,000 UK workers and showed that over their working lifetime men were typically set to earn £141,5000 more (in bonuses alone) than women doing exactly the same role. The survey also found that over the last year (2012-2013), male managers earned bonuses, which on average were double what their female counterparts received.
3.Doldor, E. et al. (2012). ‘Gender diversity on boards: The appointment process and the role of executive search firms’. Equality and human rights commission research report 85: Cranfield University.
4.Ellemers, N. & Barreto, M. (2008). ‘Maintaining the Illusion of Mritocracy: How Men and Women Interactively Sustain Gender Inequality at Work’. In Stephanie Demoulin, Jacques-Philippe Leyens, & John F. Dovidio (Eds.), Intergroup Misunderstandings. Impact of Divergent Social Realities (pp. 191-208). Psychology Press.
5.Hewlett, S.A. See also Catalyst research on women in US finance.
7.Harvard Business School case study: ‘Gender Equity’. The New York Times, September 7th, 2013.
8. Jonsen et al. (2010). ‘Gender Differences in Leadership: Seeing is Believing’. Journal of Equal Opportunities International, 29, 549-572.
9. Eagly, A.H. & Carli, L.L. (2003). ‘The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence’. The Leadership Quarterly, 14, 807-834.
10.Women “take care” and men “take charge” (2005). See this and related pieces of fine research at
11.See for example Fajak, A. & Haslam, S.A. (1998), ‘Gender solidarity in hierarchical organisations’. British Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 73-94.
12.E.g., Kramer, V.W., Konrad, A.M. & Erkut, S. (2006). Critical mass on corporate boards: Why three or more women enhance corporate governance. Wellesley Centers for Women’s Publications Office.
13.Duguid, M. (2011). Female tokens in high-prestige work groups. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 116, 104-115.
14.For a splendid summary of mechanisms behind tokenism, inequality and intergroup relations, please see The Psychology of Legitimacy (2001), by J. T. Jost & B. Major (Eds.): Cambride University Press, UK.
15.Lerner (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Plenum: New York.
16.Jonsen et al. (2013). ‘The tragedy of the uncommons: Reframing workforce diversity’. Human Relations, 66, 271-294.
17.See also Schmitt et al. (2003). ‘Perceiving and responding to gender discrimination in organizations’. In Haslam et al. (Eds), Social identity at work, 277-292.
18.Haslam, S.A. et al. (2010). ‘Investing with prejudice’. British Journal of Management, 21, 484-497.
19.Stahl, G.S. et al. (2010). ‘Unraveling the Diversity-Performance Link in Multicultural Teams: Meta-analysis of Studies on the Impact of Cultural Diversity in Teams’. Journal of International Business Studies,  2010, 41, 690-709.
20.See for example “Lean In” (2013), in which Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) provides excellent documentation for barriers and gender discriminative forces, Random House: New York. – CEDAW, full text of the convention in English.
23.United Nations Human Rights Office of The High Commissioner, New York and Geneva, 2011.
24.Largarde, C. (2013). Women and the World Economy. See also
25.Johnson, S. & Kwak, J. (2010). 13 Bankers. Pantheon Books, New York.


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