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A Review of Gender and Race Impact on Leader Development: Issue of Transformational Learning

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“She’s the Boss?”: A review of gender and race impact on leader development


Despite the proliferation of women in leadership in the decade, investigating the ways in which women and men leaders are developed continues to surface unanswered questions. Through the framework of leader image, gender bias, minority women experience, and development programs, this author will review gender-related findings from a broad survey of existing literature from the past two decades. Findings include inherent bias of leader images and characteristics; leader development considerations that vary by gender; unique experience of African-American women and leader development; and cultural gender bias. The importance of context, be it job type, group composition, organizational culture, or industry/sector, was also revealed. Suggestions for consultants and researchers alike are offered throughout this review.

Keywords: Leader Development, Gender, Race, Leadership Image, Leadership, Black Women Leaders, Women Leaders

The last ten years has given rise a dramatic increase of women in the workplace, making up 57.0 percent of the workforce in 2017 (“Women in the labor force,” 2017), a gender gap still prevails in top-level leadership positions. Women represent 45% of the S&P 500 workforce, yet only 4% of the CEOs (“Facts & Stats | Institute for Women’s Leadership,” n.d.), currently, there are 102 women in the U.S. House of Representatives making women 23.4% of the total of U.S. Representatives (Center for American Women and Politics, 2019). Statically, women earn more bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees, however, they are still left out of powerful leadership positions—in unproportionally more numbers than their male counterparts (“Facts & Stats | Institute for Women’s Leadership,” n.d.). The effort toward increasing the number of women and women of color in executive leadership positions will add value in business and academia. Filling this gap not only adds value to the organization in terms of innovative thought and creative leadership practice it enhances the representation of women in all domains of business, government, and education. Recent research does suggest that the variance in chosen leadership style by gender, has proven to render women more effective than men (Fritz & Knippenberg, 2017). Therefore, enhancing opportunities, changing the way leaders are developed, and creating the context for women to succeed as leaders is vital to the relevance of our future.

She’s the Boss?... We support Women!?

Organizational context can provide either a platform for success or a continued portrayal of outdated thought on women in leadership positions. This may appear as a simple linkage especially considering how vital environment is to leadership, however, there is little research on the psychological linkage between the individual and the employing organization and in particular how this linkage may stimulate rather than diminish female leadership aspiration (Longman, Daniels, Bray, & Liddell, 2018). How and by what means an organization defines itself is consider the foundation of the organization’s existence (Longman, Daniels, et al., 2018). An organization’s context or environment is often best described by the psychological relationship of individuals with their employing organization (Azanza, Moriano, & Molero, 2013). Researchers have proven organizational identification is positively related to various beneficial outcomes, such as attachment to one’s work group and occupation, job involvement, organizational commitment as well as job and organizational satisfaction, while also being related negatively to adverse outcomes such as intention to leave (Azanza et al., 2013). It is fair to presume that; organizational context can instigate leadership and can wash out leadership potential (Longman, Daniels, et al., 2018). When individual feel supported and a sense of belonging to their environment the pursuit of success is inevitable. Eagly and K (2014) suggest that, although stereotypical, women possess more communal traits and have an enhanced need to belong, therefore self-concept can be assumed to cater to the communal need to belong, and women’s leadership aspiration is more strongly influenced by organizational identification.

Context not only instigates leadership it is a deciding factor in leadership effectiveness. Longman (2018) surmises there are multiple external, interpersonal, and internal factors that can hinder women’s leader experience, however, none more crucial than organizational context. A leader’s experiences are vital to their effectiveness. Experiences shape and mold leader characteristics and behaviors. Women who face obstacles due to their organization's culture suffer from diminished potential. The multiple subtle and overt ways that shape women’s experience actually, interfere with the leader and leadership development process (Longman, Daniels, et al., 2018). Therefore, creating a negative experience for women in pursuit of leadership roles crafts an additional barrier for the ambitious women who may follow. The contextual obstacles deflate women’s motivation is aspire for top-level executive positions. Without the proper motivation women consistently consider executive jobs unattainable and frequently accept positions with little leadership development opportunities; which may explain overrepresentation of women in lower levels of organizations (Longman, Bray, Liddell, & Dahlvig, 2018). Organizational barriers and lack of inclusiveness can both inhibit women for gaining leadership experience and diminish their desire for top executive positions. Organizations must foster an environment that positively impacts the female professional experience by ensuring women understand their personal capacity to develop leadership skills. The first step in establishing this environment must be a clear organizational description on what a leader is.

She’s the Boss?…but she’s a Woman

If you were asked to draw an image of a leader, what would they look like? What gender would you draw? What ethnicity would you use to visualize this leader? In a study performed by, Tina Kiefer, the results in for both men and women were the same. When visualizing a leader both men and women chose a male to depict their image of a leader (Murphy, 2018). This inherit gender bias is the primary reason women aren’t initially seen as leaders. Culturally, this bias is built into our social context, starting with the traditional household roles. Men are naturally and organically considered stronger and more dominant than women. These negative stereotypes result in prejudice against women such that they are perceived as less competent leaders and less deserving of leadership roles (Simon & Hoyt, 2013).


The ideals of leader and leadership are both socially and culturally constructed and are riddled with community and individual bias. Whereas women generally are thought to be communal, possessing attributes such as affectionate, helpful, kind, and sensitive, men are thought to be more agentic, possessing attributes such as ambitious, aggressive, and dominant (Eagly & Karau, 2002). According to Eagly and Karau’s (2002) role congruity theory, prejudice against female leaders results from the incongruity between the take charge, or agentic, stereotype linked with leadership and the take care, or communal, stereotype associated with women. That is, the stereotypical image of a leader is someone who has agentic, masculine traits. Eagly and Karau (2002), described these behavioral norms as; descriptive and injunctive. Descriptive norms are perceived expectations on what a specific group should do (Carli & Eagly, 2011; Eagly & Karau, 2002)for example; men lead and women follow. Injunctive norms consciously and unconsciously agreed-upon cultural expectations on what a group ought to do or ideally would do (Carli & Eagly, 2011). Leading to the continued bias against female leaders due the, culturally imposed, lack of balance between the agentic traits that are stereotypical of leaders and the communal traits that are stereotypical of women.

Imposing these gender-specific behavioral traits create social and societal expectations. Stereotypes of any form impact leaders and their effectiveness. Research has concluded that negative stereotypes about women in leadership positions are closely tied to the gender role stereotypes about men and women. The role congruity theory developed by Eagly and Karau (2002), role bias women leaders face is explicitly related to the imbalance of the take-charge attitude, or agentic, stereotype linked with leadership and the take care, or communal, stereotype associated with women. Culturally, agnetic traits are used to describe perceived male-dominated traits, or leader behaviors (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Society continues to further perpetrate these stereotypes by using women and softer traits or emotionally driven actions as synonymous descriptors. In a recent case study, Simon and Hoyt (2013) found a habitual relationship between culture images of women and their impact on women being considered effective leaders.

Counter Stereotypes.

She’s aggressive. How often has this been said to describe a female leader who is confident and assertive? Why is she categorized as aggressive and not labeled as being a leader, which would be case if describing a male who possessed the similar characteristics? Eagly and Karau (2002) summarize women who are effective leaders tend to differ from the standards tied to their gender by taking on male-stereotypical, agentic attributes, therefore disassociating themselves with female stereotypical, communal attributes in the workplace. As society is still very wed to these prescribed behaviors women who don’t follow the norms face challenges when trying to connect with male counterparts. Consequentially resulting in unfavorable perception of performance and untapped potential.

Improper evaluation of performance and potential can be linked to societal prejudice and reliance on explanatory norms to understand gender roles. All resulting in the continue perpetration of feminine (stereotypical) traits not being characteristic of a leader. Women leaders’ must balance the juxtapose of their actions being judged against the stereotypes of both and leader and woman simultaneously. An imbalance in perceived behavior traits of women leaders can lead to negative feedback for competent women who are perceived as lacking interpersonal skills more commonly associated with women (Eagly & Karau, 2002; Rudman & Fairchild, 2004). Siding with one will eventually lead to failing at the other, and that failure being their evaluation as a leader. E and K (2002), highlight these unfair and bias evaluation criteria will produce (a) lesser access of women than men to leadership roles and (b) more obstacles for women to overcome in becoming successful in these roles. With a preponderance of reliability on effective evaluations and feedback, motivated women are continuous disproportionally marginalized due negative stereotypes (CEOs).

She’s the Boss?…but she’s a Black Woman

Women collectively face challenges entering top-level executive positions. White women refer to a glass ceiling to describe barriers to career success whereas Black women encounter a concrete ceiling, whereby opportunities for career advancement are significantly reduced or nonexistent (Bell & Nkomo, 2003; Holder, Jackson, & Ponterotto, 2015). The concrete ceiling is more challenging to penetrate as one cannot see through it (Catalyst, 2017)

The intersection of Race and Gender

Black women must navigate the obstacles of sexist bias and sexism shaped by racism and racial stereotyping. Therefore, highlighting an additional layer of discrimination toward women and captures the idea that the experience of gender discrimination in the workplace depends on a woman's race (Bell & Nkomo, 2003). Although more women have been granted high-profile leadership positions, black women, specifically, are still underrepresented at senior levels of management hierarchy and in other management positions. In 2016, there were zero Black Women running Fortune 500 companies (“Female Business Leaders,” n.d.).

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Being subjected to two concurrently discriminatory factors leave black women feeling as though they have two strikes against them. Black women continue to struggle to connect with white men in positions of power because in the words of talent management research firm Catalyst, there are “double outsiders”: They’re neither white nor men (Holder et al., 2015). The feeling of being shut out is quickly transitioned to reality, as black women are less likely to be invited to be a part of informal networks that help other people find jobs, mentors, and sponsors. The lack of perceived inclusiveness by the white counterpart is and added layer of pressure and the requirement to succeed (Holder et al., 2015). Bell and Nkomo (2003) conclude black women are more inclined to feel that they had to outperform their white colleagues - both male and female - to succeed.

Black women also grapple with the feeling of being undervalued and misrepresented in the workplace. The intersectionality of race and gender creates and additional insert of stereotypes for Black Women, like Mammy, the self-sacrificing and supportive woman; modern portrayals as crazy woman with an attitude, also create barriers for Black women in the workplace (Cheeks, 2018; Holder et al., 2015). Although Black Women are the most educated group as defined by race and gender; they continue to contest the notion they are intellectually inferior. Despite sharing similar or better qualifications of counterparts, some companies are hesitant to appoint Black women to positions of prestige and high visibility, often because of the belief that they lack the skills, leadership ability, savvy, and drive to successfully compete in the executive suite (Bell & Nkomo, 2003; Cheeks, 2018; Holder et al., 2015).

These types of daily micro-aggressions that send the message that black women don’t belong. The struggle to wake up everyday and combat the same plight without result can cause Black women to check out or give up. Resulting in what has been described as an “emotional tax” only applied to Black women that creates a psychologically burdened, feeling like they have to outwork and outperform to compensate for potential discrimination or bias and be seen as equals (Holder et al., 2015). In 2017 Black women at the top remain underrepresented: women of color make up just 3.8% of all Fortune 500 board directors. Black women occupy 11.1% of board seats held by women, and just 2.2% of all board seats (Catalyst,” 2017)

Black women continue to navigate he workforce with an invisible mask. This continued marginalization not only hurts women due to lack of representation it cripples organizations by not valuing the opportunities in diversity. As highlighted above in the discussion on stereotypes, unconscious biases can influence perceptions, judgments, and actions. Unconscious biases are unintentionally exclusionary and can lead to double standards and stalled advancement—all of which can keep Black women from being recognized as the strong contributors that they are (Longman, Daniels, et al., 2018; Rudman & Fairchild, 2004). Organizations must take a strong stance on the inclusion of not only women but women of color in development programs and executive positions.

She’s the Boss.

The secret is out. The future is Female, and the future is now. As organizations look for leaders leadership that presents as innovative, collaborative, and relevant then women must take primary consideration. This persistent effort toward inclusion won’t happen overt night and must be intentional by organizations. It requires leadership at every level to build an environment that works for women. This deliberate effort toward change must begin with changing how women leaders are developed. The disassociation from historical leader identities is only accomplished when both organizations and women work together to foster change (). This collaborative relationship is necessary for the successful implementation and sustainment of leadership programs that invest in women. Bringing women into the conversation on leader development ensures the wants and needs from their perspective are at the core of any change. Researchers have linked this type of evolution to transformational learning, which occurs at both the individual and organizational level (Mezirow, 2000).

Mezirow (2000) describes transformational learning as a “movement through time of reformulating structures of meaning by reconstructing (a) dominant narrative” (p. 19). Earlier in this paper the author discussed social and cultural norms. All of which can be described as organized thoughts and perceptions, about women leaders, formulated through community structures. Self-selected and inherited community structures help sustain a social order that is based on an established, therefore dominant, cultural, historical, and social experience and practice (Kitchenham, 2008; Mezirow, 2000). Day and Harrison (2007) suggest individuals develop schemas to define processes and guide actions in predictable ways to maintain the status quo. In other words, the continued perpetuation of outdated gender roles, for instance, women committed gender identified roles in the workplace. Incorporating transformational learning into leader programs can allow for both men and women to become aware of systematic accepted bias and patterns by fostering an environment that encourages innovative thought and practice. If these changes are sustained after the leadership development program, the new patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving mature and contribute to increased leadership effectiveness (Mezirow, 2000).

Transformational learning on a broader scale can uproot deeply planted institutionalized bias toward women leaders. In other words, transformative learning will shift the context of an organization that is plagued with problematic norms toward women in the workplace and transforming those norms into current and real ideals (Kitchenham, 2008). Learning leads to awareness and awareness is most often followed by action. Learning coupled with inclusive leader development aspects must be concurrently employed to achieve systemic change, including mentoring programs (Fritz & Knippenberg, 2017), work assignments, leadership development, unconscious bias education (Mezirow, 2000), professional development and relationship development/networking (Debebe, Anderson, Bilimoria, & Vinnicombe, 2016). While developing new leader development programs organizations will need to use a three-prong approach: Perspective, Inclusion, and Empower (PIE).

Eagly and Karau (2002) suggest women generally share a more communal perspective than their male counterparts. Due to this women leader tend act more out of organizational interest than self-interest, considered others’ viewpoints, and focused on the interpersonal aspects as well as well as the mission impact (Eagly & Karau, 2002). As the role and identity of leaders and leadership change the interpersonal skills associated with a communal perspective are growing in relevance. As challenges become more complex and dynamic, leaders’ interpersonal skills will shape their effectiveness. Adding this perspective to leader development will invalidate the need for one leader character and women leaders should experience decreased prejudice and increased acknowledgment of their effectiveness.

When organizations take a purposeful stance on the inclusion of women in leadership roles, the impact is positive in all margins. Catalyst (2017) showed that Fortune 500 companies with at least 3 women on their board of directors made contributions that were 28 times higher than non-diverse boards. In addition, for every woman added to a board, annual giving increased by $2.3 million, suggesting gender-inclusive leadership is good for business and society. Inclusion at executive levels is fundamentally rooted in the insertion of women and is characterized by greater representation of diverse groups. Organizations placing intentional efforts in supporting underrepresented groups for the benefit of those groups and the organization is another outlook (Fredette, Bradshaw, & Krause, 2016). This approach to inclusion is created to be valuable because it creates greater access and opportunities for women leaders. Making a conscious effort toward inclusion will allow for the emergence of more leaders.

There is no tool more effective in leader development, than the empowerment of women (Kofi, 2016). According to the World Bank (2016) empowerment is the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Empowerment is the practice of intentional behaviors. Resulting in the deliberate development of women as leaders and creating spaces for them to fill. Laschinger, Wong, Cummings, and Grau (2014), reference, Kanter's theory of structural empowerment, in which empowerment is centered on the notion of power, measured by an individual’s ability to get things done. Power is the most fluid leader outcome and can live within an organization in both formal and informal communities. The intentional development of women must allow for both forms of power: formal and informal. The creating of formal power is linked to central positions within an organization, informal power is created through networks of connections, or relationships with mentors and peers (Laschinger et al., 2014). Both are similar in that they enable the access to four empowerment structures: 1. access to opportunities to learn and grow, 2. access to information, 3. access to support, and 4. access to resources required for the job (Laschinger et al., 2014). Of the four the most influential are: access to opportunities to learn and grow and access to support. Creating opportunities for women to succeed guarantees a future full of innovative thought and practices; it also ensures women's voices are heard and added to thread of successful organizations and societies. Creating opportunities not only helps women it also benefits business and government, women have a valuable voice in a unique perspective adding this perspective into the inner workings of business decision-making and political bylaws ensures the future of our nation is secure. These opportunities must come with support women, as women have for so long been seen as non-effective leaders, or just not leaders at all, throwing them into opportunities without proper support is only setting them up for failure. In KPMG Women’s Leadership Study (2017), women were asked, what’s holding you back from pursuing leadership positions:

“92 percent of respondents said they do not feel confident asking for sponsors, 79 percent lack confidence seeking mentors, 76 percent asking for access to senior leadership, 73 percent pursuing a job opportunity beyond their experience, 69 percent asking for a career path plan, and 56 percent requesting a new role or position”

Ensuring that women are supported in positions of leadership comes in forms of mentorship, performance feedback, personal and professional assessment, and senior leader engagement.

Organizations would benefit for early identification of diverse leader potential. Identifying potential in women leaders within the organization will assist in preparing and sustaining the organization through future challenges. Leadership development programs must adopt the PIE model for leader development. The model focusing on contextual change through transformation learning, leader identity change through diverse perspectives, intentional inclusion through purposeful diversity, and leader empowerment with structured support. Women are continuously overlooked and underestimated. Women leader development is leader development.


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