Gender Diversity in Top Management Teams

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Gender diversity in the workplace has been a topic of conversation in the United States since the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s (Burkett, 2019). As time has gone on, the calls to action for equal opportunities in employment have intensified with the inclusion of laws protecting women from gender discrimination. There have been many proposed solutions to increase the opportunities for women in the workforce including both quota and non-quota methods. While many countries, particularly in Europe have voluntary and non-voluntary quotas, the United States has yet to consider quotas as an option. Meanwhile, many organizations in the United States have made use of non-quota methods with varied levels of success. This literature review will focus on women in top management teams – the barriers they face getting into higher levels of management, some possible non-quota solutions and some new perspectives on how quotas may be installed and enforced in the United States.

Barriers for Women in Management

Before evaluating any possible solutions for increasing gender diversity in top management teams or in general, it’s important to explore the barriers that women face today in the workplace. With 57.6% of bachelor’s degrees and higher earned by women in the United States, it is safe to say that a lack of education may not be the barrier that it once was for women to achieve gainful employment (Alstott, 2014). So, the open question remains, where are the obstacles?

One possible answer provided by researchers Jeffrey Flory, Andreas Leibbrandt, and John List suggests that women tend to shy away from competitive workplaces for reasons of a need for workplace security. In their study, they examine how women approach job applications for listings that have different types of compensation packages, wording and more to see where women’s interests lie in the job market. They found that women tend to stay away from jobs where compensation packages are performance-based or uncertain even when they clearly outperformed or out-qualified men in a specific market. However, women would apply for jobs where compensation packages were performance-based or uncertain but only if the job market presented a lack of options for more secure fixed-wage opportunities (Flory, 2015). As leadership and management demand a level of confidence and natural competitive nature, this could be an early indicator that women, simply need to be empowered and encouraged to seek riskier opportunities in order to get ahead in the job marketplace. Additionally, leadership positions may not share the same security as entry-level jobs or areas where women are comfortable and accepted into working so another conclusion could be that being comfortable with the security of fixed wages could indicate that women tend to not take the risks needed to get on a management track.

Yet this is not the case for all women, some have broken through barriers to reach higher levels of management. In another study that takes the perspective of women in top management teams by interviewing thirty female board members from the United States, United Kingdom, and Ghana, researchers found that women in management positions faced different barriers even after reaching their goals of being in management. In the study, women felt they faced closer scrutiny than their male counterparts and often had to remain friendly even when the males in their position would respond with aggression for fear of criticism. “There is a need for ‘Women to be capable of fitting in with the culture and at times almost be chameleon-like. They need to modify their approach and use their emotional intelligence to deal with different situations and build relationships'”. Women respondents found that only when they are compliant with the unspoken rules of the field, they could gain momentum in their goals of reaching higher levels of management without the consequences of tokenization and stereotypes (Kakabadse, 2015). In spite of these barriers, gender diversity is considered a positive goal for top management teams in order to bring a mix of skills and avoid the homogeneity that having a single-sex board can bring.

While this research only evaluates some of the barriers women can face when attempting to move into upper levels of management for purposes of confirmation they exist, there are various methods which organizations are using today to attempt to neutralize the playing field for women. These methods can be broken down into two groups: non-quota methods and quota methods. While a non-quota method can be considered an effort to increase gender diversity with no hard requirement on results, a quota method involves the requirement of a set number of people allowed to do something.

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Non-Quota Diversity Methods

The United States as a society tends to believe in a meritocratic ideal that is based in the ‘American Dream’ and he (or she) who follows that dream, works hard and earns it should receive the rewards of their labor – it is for this reason that the U.S. has not favored the idea of quotas for any minority group in legislature (Gröschl, 2016). Instead, most U.S. organizations have taken it upon themselves to increase diversity through non-quota methods that rely on more self-monitoring within the confines anti-discrimination laws.

As mentioned, women face different barriers depending on the stage of their career, whether they are in the job finding phase, employment phase, or management phase. Because of this, there should perhaps be different non-quota gender diversity methods to cover all of the different phases and barriers women might face. Drawing on Krook and Norris’ study that does just that in the frame of gender diversity in politics, each of those phases are viewed as ‘intervention points’ where gender diversity initiatives can be introduced. The first intervention point (interest in an elected office with suitable qualifications) employ gender diversity methods that include, recruitment, capacity development programs, anti-violence laws, reforms to working conditions and awareness raising campaigns. The second intervention point (candidacy for elected office) rely on gender diversity methods that include, campaign support, women’s sections, party funding regulations, internal party quotas. The third intervention point (elected office) makes use of gender diversity methods that include, funding opportunities, women’s caucuses, training and gender research (Krook, 2014). All of these methods are easily transferable to organizations outside of politics with slight variations and could be studied to evaluate success or failure.

Another area to consider when evaluating non-quota diversity efforts is that of the managers that enforce the methods and their perspective of their success or failure. In their study, Dobbin, Schrage, and, Kalev did just that by examining four areas of gender diversity reform and surveyed managers in combination with data collected from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and national labor statistics to evaluate effectiveness. The four categories included managerial engagement reform (special recruitment, management training, etc.), discretion control reform (job tests, grievance procedures, etc.), transparency reforms (job postings and ladders for advancement), and diversity managers and federal monitoring. All of the categories were found to have a positive impact on increasing diversity by the managers surveyed with the exception of discretion control reforms – managers found that job tests and grievance procedures did not help increase diversity but instead created more segregation (Dobbin 2015).

While there are plenty of non-quota methods for increasing gender diversity out there with varying levels of success, a true meritocratic society can only exsit if there is no level of discrimination, yet by many organizations employing non-quota methods to increase diversity, there is an admission of inequality. “When meritocracy is show to be compromised, that nags at broad American sensibilities about what is fair and wedges open the door for change efforts” (Gröschl, 2016 pp. 162). It is for that reason; the U.S. might consider a quota solution – and perhaps if put in the right perspective, quotas can be something Americans’ are willing to embrace.

Quotas: How They Work with Meritocracy

There is very little doubt that any gender quota imposed on businesses in the United States through legislature would not survive constitutional scrutiny nor public opinion. However, there are potential ways around the traditional quota that could be applied in the United States and allow for incentives that might attract the support of organizations.

In the study, ‘Gender Quotas for Corporate Boards: Options for Legal Design in the United States’, Alstott suggests the use of tax reform as a possible way to legally introduce quotas for top management teams that could provide breaks and rewards for participating companies. This provides an attractive incentive for companies to increase their gender diversity and has been used before in a capitalist society like America to push political agendas like increasing jobs in America. However, the research notes that some factors must be considered when applying this kind of motivation which includes a transition period allowing industries with very few women a window to hire, train and promote and the inclusion of all nonprofit organizations in the tax reform (Alstott, 2014). The factors mentioned are important to avoid the tokenization that could occur with women as a result of quotas as to not just put the only woman in the organization in a board seat to get a tax break – the idea is to give the business time to organically grow its gender diversity and promote women. Nonprofit organizations being included opens doorways for women in medicine, education and more while simultaneously blanketing all industries with the same requirement and fixing the discrimination gaps that meritocracy tends to compete with.

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Gender Diversity in Top Management Teams. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from
“Gender Diversity in Top Management Teams.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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