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Unfolding the Gender Glitch in Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sebawit Bishu
March 24, 2015

Five Nordic countries are commended for having achieved the highest rankings in the Global Gender Gap Index prepared by the World Economic Forum. According to an article by The Economist, these countries have worked hard to provide opportunities for women including quota system for participation in politics, education and providing necessary facilities to make it easier for women’s participation in the workforce. Nordic countries also have strong foundations of equal opportunity and protection policies for women in the workforce.

Bishu marchNevertheless, this article presents a compelling story on the mystery of women’s absence in top management. The mystery lies in why these Nordic countries, when having scored high in the Global Gender Gap Index, score significantly low when it comes to women’s participation in corporate top management. The article challenges the assumed causal relationship between equal employment opportunity and favorable work-life balance policies to women’s representation in the workforce.

In this article I present three layers of discussions on what we know and what we do not yet know about why women managers are missing in the workforce including the public sector (federal, state or local). The first discussion presents on what we know so far about why women remain scarce in top management positions that exercise legitimate workplace authority. The second layer presents a discussion on where we come up short in our understanding of why women remain scarce in top management. The third layer presents a discussion on what remains unexplored.

In this article, I am particularly interested in discussing issues of position segregation. The condition of position segregation in organizations is manifested when women are concentrated at lower levels of organizational hierarchies. Alkadry and Tower in Women in Public Service: Barriers, Challenges and Opportunities argue that “organizational,” “personal,” “socio-cultural” factors partly explain why women are missing from higher management positions.

There are many researches that address issues of position segregation at different levels and types of organizations including public institutions (federal, state and local). In the past, most studies had associated the presence of gender based position segregation to lack of adequate human capital by women. Mitra, in a 2003 Journal of Economics titled “Access to Supervisory Jobs and the Gender Wage Gap among Professionals,” concludes that human capital is not a significant predictor of gender based wage gap. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2011) also supports the argument made by Mitra that more women are going to college and graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men. From institutional structure and dynamics point of view, past studies find that organizational mission and function, workplace policies, gender of key employees in management position, unionization, organization budget, size and longevity are among other factors which determine the possibility of women cracking “the glass ceiling” barrier.

We also know that for the last 50 years the United States federal government, through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has implemented Equal Employment Opportunity policies to prohibit workplace related discriminatory acts against women and other minority groups. This policy is meant to ensure that women and other minority groups get equal opportunities for access to employment including promotion into top management positions. However, regardless of 50 years of equal employment opportunity policies in place, women remain quiet absent from management positions both in the private and public sectors.

In a 1994 American Journal of Sociology article titled “Returns to Skill, Compensating Differentials and Gender Bias: Effects of Occupational Characteristics on the Wages of White Women and Men” by Kilbourne et al confirms that socio-cultural factors have significant impact on women’s participation in management position. However, not much investigation has been conducted on this particular factor. Studies in public administration have missed the opportunity to pursue in-depth investigation of how socio-cultural factors determine women’s participation in public sector management. Public institutions are reflections of society, societal values and ways of life. Individuals that manage public institutions also reflect their societal norms and social values. To ignore the importance of socio-cultural factors and their effects on organizational culture and decision-making process is an error particularly to the field of public administration.

It is also important to mention what remains to be explored in our understanding of how personal factors including decision-making processes such as self-selection contribute to the lack of women’s participation in management. I argue that besides structural, socio-cultural and human capital factors, an individual’s decision-making process does contribute to the scarcity of women in management.

Finally, I find it important to close my discussion with The Economist story, “A Nordic Mystery.” The story presents a significant and noteworthy conversation on how even when countries are applauded for having been able to close the gender gap in society; they have failed to close the gender gap in top management. How is it possible that when female-friendly and protective workplace policies have been extensively implemented, the gender gap in organizational management attainment still remains low? Perhaps, I argue, there is more to female-friendly workplace policies to address gender differences in management in organizations, including the public sector.


Author: Sebawit Bishu is currently a Ph.D. student of public affairs at Florida International University. Her research interests are related to human resource and diversity issues in the public sector, gender and institutional development and public policies related to urban transformation. She can be contacted via email at [email protected].

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