Break Through and Pass the Gate: Why is There Gender Disparity in Leadership?

Even though research shows female leaders exhibit more frequent effective leadership behaviors than male leaders (Why Women Are Better Leaders), many studies reveal women tend to have a slower career progression than their male counterparts. This includes less female executives, less frequent promotions, less income increase and a wide income gap. They also tend to have an overall different career trajectory than their males counterparts (e.g., females have lower average occupation score ranking than males when it comes to the first job).[1]

Why is that?

Some say that it is because women have more career interruptions due to childbirth;i some say that it is because women are less ambitious and invest less in their career;[2] while some invoked more complicated reasons, such as that females on average earn less than their spouses and hence are less likely to accept a transfer or relocation offer (which often means promotion) to not disrupt the income of the spouses.[3] 

However, in a study of the career progressions of male and female managers employed by 20 fortune 500 companies in the 1990s, researchers not only ruled out all of the above-mentioned hypotheses, but also found that even though the women in the study had done “all the right stuff”— receiving the same amount of education as men, contributing to a similar percentage of family income as men, minimizing career interruptions and being willing to transfer to another geographical location — it was still not enough.

In the end, the between gender income gap still widened.[4]

What is worse is that one female breaking the glass ceiling doesn’t necessarily lead to gender balances within leadership in the future. Although the success of female leaders can positively affect women’s self-perceptions of competence, an unsuccessful one can reinforce negative stereotypes about their own abilities and hampers the evaluations of ALL other minority candidates.[5] Consequently, such psychological burden can impair female leaders’ performance.

Therefore, for female professionals to make as much career progression as males, they not only need to do ALL the right things, but also cannot have any missteps. Is it still surprising that we don’t have as many female leaders in the workplace?

What can we do to help the future workplace to bridge such gender disparity?

As you can see from the above research evidence, some of the causes for the lack of female leaders reside in the culture and gender stereotypes.

To reduce the gender gap in the workplace, organizations should not only focus on helping females accelerate in their progression and development, we should also work on building a work culture where talents are viewed as malleable and mistakes are welcomed as opportunities for growth rather than a sign of incompetence (to combat stereotypes).

After all, a “women-friendly” workplace is often a sign of a healthy organizational culture, where all talents are supported regardless of gender, orientation, race, background or other differences.[6]  So in my next post, let’s talk about how to create an inclusive and supportive culture.

Stay tuned!   


[1] Bukodi, E., Dex, S., & Joshi, H. (2012). Changing career trajectories of women and men across time. In Gendered Lives. Edward Elgar Publishing.

[2] Ashby, J., & Schoon, I. (2010). Career success: The role of teenage career aspirations, ambition value and gender in predicting adult social status and earnings. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77, 350-360.

[3] Rodman, H. (1972). Marital power and the theory of resources. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 3, 50-69.

[4] Stroh, L. K., Brett, J. M., & Reilly, A. H. (1992). All the right stuff: A comparison of female and male managers' career progression. Journal of applied psychology, 77, 251-260.

[5] Manzi, F., & Heilman, M. E. (2020, November 30). Breaking the Glass Ceiling: For One and All?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

[6] Taylor, J. (September, 2018). Lack of women in leadership. Is culture to blame? Retrieved from:

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.