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The Path to Executive: What’s Different for Women


By Maxine Clarke and Julie Chesley

Presently, while 66% of business undergraduate females (Powell & Butterfield, 2013) and 78% of women in upper-level management roles (Vachon & Lavis, 2013) aspire to senior executive positions, women hold only 32% of senior management positions in Canada (Catalyst, 2014). Unlike their parents, the Millennial generation is showing signs of being less willing to accept this lack of diversity at the top (Deloitte, 2015).

A substantial amount of research has investigated the differences between what aspiring women and aspiring men experience in their journey to senior leadership. The well known double-bind and glass ceiling phenomena (Sandberg, S., 2013; Hewlett, S. A., 2014) lack of female role models (Bain & Company Inc. 2014; Sealy & Singh, 2009), complications related to being mentored by a male (Hansman, 1999; O’Neill & Blake-Beard, 2002), the choice to pursue career paths that do not amass the requisite experience (Credit Suisse Research, 2014), the career interrupting demands of childbearing and domestic accountability (Hewlett, S. A., 2002) and limiting self-efficacy beliefs (Bandura, 2001; McKinsey&Company, 2007) all contribute to notable differences in experience for females that can result in a lack of equal representation of women and men at the senior levels of organizations.

These differences start at an early age, when women are making decisions about their education and career, and continue throughout their career. As children, women’s career interests and pursuits can be constricted by a sense of inefficacy for occupations traditionally pursued by males, such as science and technology. Because women are disinclined to choose careers in these fields, the occupations lack female role models to inspire and encourage women to enter these career paths (Bandura et al., 2001). In college, while male students have an equally high sense of efficacy for both traditionally male-dominated and female-dominated occupations, females judge themselves more efficacious for occupations traditionally held by women and less efficacious for those traditionally dominated by men.

After vocational choices are made, women face a restricted quantity of potential role models at higher organizational levels (Sealy & Singh, 2009). Successful female role models are highly beneficial for women, both because they provide inspirational examples of success and because they undermine traditional, limiting gender stereotypes (Lockwood, 2006). The lack of senior female leaders to look up to presents an issue in that additional time and effort is spent by female managers ascertaining how they should behave and present themselves at work (Sheppard, 1989). While men get confirmation of their identity through shared maleness with their senior leaders, without sufficient females leaders to serve as role models, women have limited resources (Wahl, 1998).

Women also have more difficulty accessing mentorship and sponsorship. Women can have difficulty initiating mentoring relationships with males due to perceived sexual misconduct (Hansman, 1999). In addition, with a significantly higher percentage of men than women in senior positions, senior women leaders can become overwhelmed and not capable of mentoring all the women who would like to be mentored by them (Hewlett, 2013, pp. 137-153). Considering that it is more important for women than men to obtain the support of legitimizing agents who can lend social capital and credibility to their ascent (Riley-Bowles, 2012) and to develop close network ties and avoid a transactional approach to relationships (Ibarra, 1997), both of these phenomena can create barriers to growth and advancement that women must overcome.

Finally, when navigating their career paths, women frequently get stuck at lower levels of the organization in traditionally female dominated paths that lead them away from line leadership roles that build the necessary experience for senior leadership (Riley-Bowles, 2012). The few women who climb to the highest rungs of the business hierarchy commonly experience social resistance from others and social identity conflict within themselves (Riley-Bowles, 2012). Along the way and in leadership roles, women face double binds, which are no-win stereotypes that men do not face, that label and limit women by imposing seemingly mutually exclusive identities such as whether they are perceived as a feminine or a good leader (Wholdbold & Chernier, 2011; Sandberg, S, 2013). Dweck (2006, p 77-79) suggests that women who perceive their intelligence or capability as fixed, rather than malleable, are most affected by the lack of inclusion, stereotype and criticism, and are more likely to doubt themselves and consider an alternate course when faced with them.

As demonstrated here, the female experience, both on the way to and at the senior level, has proven to be very different from the male experience. The combined impacts of lower self-efficacy, lack of role models, challenges accessing mentors and sponsors, and social resistance offer some unique challenges for females to navigate as they ascend to the executive level. These phenomena suggest that an opportunity exists to explore ways that organizations and governments can reduce barriers and create conditions that allow for women to build efficacy and relevant experience throughout their careers.


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Maxine Clarke the Director, Career Education & Coaching at the University of Alberta. Her focus is helping students develop the skills, network, knowledge and confidence to navigate their careers successfully. Maxine loves creating meaningful development and learning experiences for students and helping them exceed their own expectations in career and in life. Maxine’s background includes recruiting to executive positions, designing leadership development programs and leading a variety of different teams. Maxine’s education includes a Bachelor of Commerce, Certificate in Executive Coaching, Masters of Science in Organizational Development (in progress) as well as professional certifications. Maxine enjoys getting engaged in her community through volunteering, and has served on many non-profit boards of directors in recent years. 

Julie Chesley PhD, Director, MSOD Program and Associate Professor of Organization Theory and Management at Pepperdine University.

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