Women in Leadership: Contextual Dynamics and Boundaries

Karen Anderson , Marian Court (School of Educational Studies, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 8 June 2012



Anderson, K. and Court, M. (2012), "Women in Leadership: Contextual Dynamics and Boundaries", Gender in Management, Vol. 27 No. 4, pp. 286-288. https://doi.org/10.1108/17542411211244821



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Karin Klenke's new book is about the achievements and experiences of some exceptional women leaders in the contexts of politics, business, information technology, the media, sports, the military, religion and science/higher education/the arts. She chose these contexts because of their “paradoxical nature” in that they have remained largely male‐dominated despite women having “made significant inroads” in them (p. xii). Paradoxes – such as evidence of changing expectations of women leaders that may have enabled a particular woman to advance into a powerful position, co‐existing alongside ubiquitous gender‐differentiated stereotypes that seem to hold many women back in the same environment – are a feature of the discussions throughout the book.

Klenke highlights, in the first chapter, the way context influences “what leaders must do and what they can do” (p. 8). Drawing on a range of definitions to give substance to the concept, she presents gender as a cultural dynamic that varies across different contexts according to their particular characteristics. Thus, in the main body of the book (Chapters 3‐10), she draws on quantitative and qualitative research relevant to each specific field, along with popular press sources, to provide detailed information that will appeal to those who want to know more about a particular leadership context.

Each chapter opens with a vignette that describes the career and contributions of a woman who has achieved power and/or been very influential in her chosen field. This is followed by an overview of women's representation in leadership positions in this context, before descriptions and discussions of its particular contextual characteristics are explained. For example, in the chapter on political systems, Klenke identifies three main features that she sees as significant for leadership. First, whether they are elected or appointed, political leaders work within a governmental hierarchy where “bargaining games” are required to win and maintain power. Second, crisis situations are often a catalyst in political systems for the rise of individually charismatic leaders. And third, she maintains that ideologies of female political leaders, the causes they support and their family ties are significant factors impacting on women's participation in political leadership (pp. 48‐9). As in other chapters, Klenke then explores some of the literature that has investigated reasons for women's under‐representation in this field, highlighting in this case the prevailing male stereotypes of leadership styles and skills that foster people's beliefs that men are more effective political leaders than women.

While we were concerned by a tendency to generalize and to simplify causal links, other readers may well find Klenke's juxtaposing of contextual details with stories about particular women leaders useful and interesting. It does provide readers with opportunities to explore the evidence about women's representation in and experiences of leadership in relation to how Klenke sees the shaping influences of their particular contexts. This approach has also enabled Klenke to draw out some themes that will be no surprise to those familiar with women's studies scholarship in regard to leadership. Klenke exposes some ubiquitous challenges, obstacles and difficulties that many women face, regardless of their context, in getting into leadership roles and, once in those roles, being accepted as authentic leaders. She also shows how, despite the difficulties, some women have been able to make a difference through power and influence.

In this regard, Chapter 2's historical stories of some exceptional and/or powerful women leaders provide a useful longitudinal perspective on women in leadership. This chapter gives readers a sense not only of how over the years there have been strong and insightful women who have been very influential in different spheres of human work and endeavour, but also shows that many of the issues of the past are still relevant today. However, apart from this chapter and Chapter 10's examples of women leaders in some parts of the globe, Chapters 3 through 10 draw primarily on American examples and literature. Klenke briefly acknowledges in her preface that the book's themes are predominantly anglo‐centric, but the extending of the American‐centric stories and issues into sweeping statements about women in general weakens her discussions in our view. Arguably, these factors also limit the interest and relevance of the book for international readers. The chapter on global women leaders goes some way to address this, with its diversity and depth of discussion on a wide range of women leaders. Perhaps it would have been a positive addition to the early part of the book to have at least made mention of some of these leaders to “set the scene” more accurately and fully?

Readers who are looking for insights into current theoretical debates around gender inequalities in leadership that up‐date Klenke's earlier 1996 volume, Women and Leadership: A Contextual Perspective may be disappointed. Klenke states in her Preface that some of the vignettes illustrate key concepts relevant to women and leadership (such as the glass ceiling) and she identifies two theoretical lenses used to conceptualise gender and management (p. 15). We found the literature cited on “doing gender” rather dated and “thin” however and in the book, overall, there is an uneven quality of theoretical discussion. For example, Connell's influential concept of hegemonic masculinity is mentioned in one sentence in the chapter on sport, but this is not explicated sufficiently to illuminate the situation or the issues being discussed. In terms of the most recent scholarship and theories being used in the areas of educational leadership and management studies, we also wondered why the now large international literature examining leadership in the compulsory education sectors was not mentioned at all. Insightful understandings have been opened up in that field by scholars such as Jill Blackmore in Australia and Helen Gunter in the UK, for example. Feminist scholars in Aotearoa New Zealand have also grappled with social justice issues such as indigenous and gay rights, examining how these have intersected with issues of gender inequalities. Such issues continue to impact on what counts as appropriate, powerful, insightful and influential leadership in this country. We did not find these kinds of analyses being broached by Klenke. Rather than using her own rich material about the varying experiences of individual women in different contexts to draw out an analysis that illustrates how women cannot be understood simply as a homogeneous group discussed only in comparison with men, Klenke's discussions tend to rely on the latter.

To be fair, in‐depth theoretical discussions are probably not the primary purpose of this book, and the inclusion of a case study vignette of a “toxic” woman leader in the military field goes some way to countering our criticisms above. This story shows how some women can be unsuited to leadership or misuse the power invested in leadership roles – just as some men may do: that is, being a “toxic” leader is not gender‐specific. This vignette was valuable; it made us think about whether it was the military context that “caused”, or allowed this kind of negative, destructive woman leader to “rise to power”? We also thought about questions around “political correctness” and how the corrupting influences of power could be countered. We would have liked to have seen these questions explored further in other chapters.

We would have been very interested also to read (in the political or the media chapters, perhaps) some in‐depth analysis of how and why some powerful women are belittled and their innovations resisted and overturned. For example, Helen Clark, Leader of the Labour Party in Aotearoa New Zealand and our first elected female Prime Minister, served three terms in office (nine years in total) but she was mercilessly caricatured in the press, being presented as aggressive, “un‐feminine” and finally as leading a “nanny state” government that repressed people's rights. This was in spite of her many personal achievements and contributions. In recent years in New Zealand, all the most senior positions in governance, the judiciary, business and politics have had women leaders, several at the same time; mention of this would have been a valuable inclusion.

Nevertheless, Klenke set out to identify and raise issues around paradoxes and to draw out patterns that seem to persist in women's leadership experiences in a range of different contexts – and she has achieved that aim. There is plenty of interesting information here and readers who wish to just “dip into” the areas they are interested in or want to know more about, will certainly be informed about the challenges, opportunities and difficulties facing women leaders, past and present.

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