How Globalization Impedes Women's Progress into Leadership
One of the primary challenges facing women aspiring to take on leadership positions is the metaphorical “glass ceiling,” an invisible yet seemingly impenetrable barrier that impedes women’s career advancement. At the moment, we know that a number of obstacles , including gender role socialization, work/life conflict, inadequate employer support, a lack of career sponsors, and a lack of female leaders serving as role models, contribute to the small number of women in middle management. However, a firm’s strategy and how it chooses to compete also has a significant impact on women’s career progression.
In particular, in an era of globalization, women’s relative lack of experience engaging in overseas assignments and international activities can limit their progress into the management ranks. Barriers obstructing women’s advancement into lower and middle-level management positions are particularly problematic as these positions embody the pipeline for promotion into senior leadership roles.
Studies have shown that employers actively hire and promote women in organizations because women provide strategic value to the firm. For example, firms may hire women to meet Affirmative Action requirements needed to secure federal contracts. We also know from the business case that hiring women can attract more female customers, foster positive relations with investors, and gain legitimacy with other stakeholders. In this respect, promoting women into management can help attract other women to join the firm, boost the retention of women within a firm, and increase the headcount for women. Thus, hiring and promoting women makes business sense, as firms acquire resources to secure their long-term survival.
However, firms pursuing an internationalization strategy can have a detrimental effect on the advancement of women. We conducted a survey of 278 large firms based in Canada to examine whether key organizational factors, such as a firm’s level of internationalization, the CEO’s gender, and the firm’s active recruitment of women were associated with the proportion of women who have advanced into middle management positions. We found that firms with a high degree of internationalization (measured as percentage of firm revenues from international operations) have fewer women in management.
When firms are dependent on foreign operations for their survival and when foreign countries express prejudices when interacting with women, employers may not see value in hiring and promoting women, and deploying them abroad. This may explain why women are less likely to be sent overseas on international assignments because of gender biases in certain foreign countries. In other words, when women are not considered to be a critical resource to a firm, they are less likely to be promoted. This, in turn, limits women’s advancement into senior management because they often require international experience as a skill set necessary for leadership roles.
Interestingly, we similarly found that foreign-owned firms operating in Canada tend to have fewer women in management despite the presence of strong Affirmative Action laws. Foreign-owned firms, motivated by profit maximization, may simply choose not to comply with local laws (and pay a penalty) when the cost for implementing gender equality programs exceeds the benefits from investing in women’s careers. Indeed, there is some prior evidence suggesting that even foreign-owned firms hailing from countries with strong track records for gender equality (e.g., Denmark, Sweden, Finland) may not follow through with the tradition of promoting women when operating abroad.
In addition to firm internationalization and foreign ownership, we found that although very few companies are led by female CEOs (7% in our sample, comparable to the national average), firms with a female CEO tended to have more women in management. This finding emerged taking into account industry sector, suggesting that female CEOs can be helpful for promoting and supporting the careers of female employees in different industry sectors (i.e., not just in female-dominated industries).
Female CEOs are aware of the disadvantages women face, and they may have experienced some of these challenges themselves in their accession to the top job. As a result, they may implement more inclusive workplace policies and practices that make it easier for women to manage a successful career and family life. Female CEOs may also act as role models that inspire other women to seek out leadership positions, and they may have the effect of adapting a firm’s culture so that it conveys a more positive attitude of inclusivity toward women.
Finally, we found that firms with an active recruitment process for women tend to also have a greater number of women in management. Although this may seem intuitive, this finding reinforces the idea that recruiting more women into a firm, even at lower levels, may provide a critical mass of women within the organization that can help change the all-male dynamic that fuels the forces of homophily. This may in turn prompt employers to be more sensitive to the needs of all employees, including those of women. As a result, employers are more likely to design policies and practices (such as work/life flexibility, developmental programs, mentorship) that support the careers of women, facilitating their advancement.
Given that few organizations are led by women, our study underscores the importance of having more gender equality policies that can stimulate the advancement of women into management. These policies can enhance a firm’s reputation and attract a greater number of women to the firm, and providing a pipeline for female talent for future promotions.
Eddy Ng, Ph.D., is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour and the F.C. Manning Chair in Economics and Business at the Rowe School of Business, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada.
Greg J. Sears, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
This study appeared as “The glass ceiling in context: the influence of CEO gender, recruitment practices and firm internationalisation on the representation of women in management.” Human Resource Management Journal, 27(1), 133-151.