Women Leaders Are Held Back in Some Cultures More than Others - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #098

Women Leaders Are Held Back in Some Cultures More than Others

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Why are there not more female leaders, and could culture be one of the factors that holds women back? This Idea proposes that the strength of norms and social sanctions in a culture — its ‘tightness’ — determines how many women will be represented in top leadership positions there. 


Traditionally, more men than women have emerged in leadership positions. But over the past few decades, this has steadily been changing. An increasing number of women are taking top leadership roles; as of January 2013, 21 of the 500 Fortune 500 CEOs were female — a milestone for corporate America.

But look at the situation from a global perspective and the statistics differ. The emergence of women as leaders is stronger in some nations over others. Why is that so and what factors influence the number of females in top executive positions in a particular country?

Faculty from Rotman School of Management set out to uncover whether culture plays any role in this, specifically looking at cultural ‘tightness’. Tight cultures generally have rigid rules regarding behaviour and are quick to impose tough sanctions on those people that don’t abide by them. Examples of countries that score high on tightness include Pakistan, Malaysia, Norway and Japan; in contrast, Ukraine, Israel, the Netherlands and Australia score much lower.

Data on these cultures show that tightness is negatively associated with leadership emergence; the tighter a culture is, fewer leadership positions tend to be filled by women in them. In contrast, egalitarian practices positively predict percentages of leadership positions filled by women.

According to researchers Toh and Leonardelli, tight cultures hold women back because “cultural tightness provokes a resistance to changing the traditional and widespread view that leadership is masculine.” 


Attempts to change cultural norms and overcome resistance to women leaders will be more difficult and require greater effort in tight cultures. As such, organizations that want to promote female leadership should find ‘loose’ cultures more favourable for doing so. Take the example of Deutsch Telekom — a German corporation — which found that its German unit has been less successful in achieving targets for women management representation than its foreign offices, due to cultural beliefs about the gender of leaders there.

Before entering and doing business in tight cultures, firms should be aware that women may self-select out of leadership positions and that decision-makers may have implicit biases in their leadership prototypes. But that is not to say that these cultures should be completely avoided; when gender egalitarian practices are accepted, these cultures also yield the greatest improvement in women leader representation. Though, of course, this requires great effort with no guarantee that change can be implemented. However, Toh and Leonardelli are confident that it is not an impossible task as cultures are not simply features of societies; rather, they can be shaped to serve a social purpose.

Nevertheless, if an organization is committed to seeing through a change initiative, then top management play a critical role. Awareness is the first step; managers should take a proactive approach, gauge the process by which leaders are evaluated in the organization, and rectify procedures if they systematically give advantage to men. 



Cultural Constraints on the Emergence of Women as Leaders. Soo Min Toh & Geoffrey J. Leonardelli. Journal of World Business (October 2012).


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Idea conceived

October 1, 2012

Idea posted

Feb 2013
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