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The Underlying Dynamics of Women in Leadership


by Stephany Below, Communications Manager

Karen Korabik Wins Outstanding Scholarship Award for Work on Women Leaders

The role of women in the workplace has changed drastically over the last century as women have made large strides toward workplace equality. However, while women now make up nearly half of the workforce, they still lag behind.

Although they make up 44 percent of total Fortune 500 employees, women make up only 25.1 percent of executive officers, 9.5 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, according to 2016 statistics from Catalyst. They hold just 19.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats.

So, how can women leaders make further gains? One way, according to Karen Korabik, is by supporting each other.

There are many more women in positions of leadership now than when Korabik started her career. While this is something she believes is positive on its own, she said it also leads to a potentially greater benefit—helping promote each other and women’s needs in general.

“This means that there is more potential for women leaders to advocate on behalf of women’s needs, mentor and support other women, and help protect them from the negative effects of toxic environments,” Korabik said.

Korabik, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology and  Centre for Families, Work, and Well-Being at University of Guelph (Canada), received the Outstanding Scholarship for Established Scholars award last month from the Women and Leadership Affinity Group (WLAG) of the International Leadership Association (ILA) for her extensive career studying women in leadership.

“It was wonderful to have the research that I have been doing with my colleagues over the past forty years receive recognition for having made a contribution to the field,” she said. “I am very grateful to the Women in Leadership Affinity Group of the International Leadership Association for honoring me with this award.”

The award recognizes excellence in the scholarship of a seasoned scholar whose published work (theoretical, empirical, or applied) has advanced the understanding of women in leadership in a significant way and may acknowledge a body of research or a single piece of research. Nominees have typically been involved in scholarship for at least 5 years.

Lynda Zugec, SIOP member and Chair of Canadian Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (CSIOP), illustrated Korabik’s thoughts on women in leadership by working with SIOP members as well as CSIOP members to nominate Korabik for the award.

Zugec noted the good that can come out of cross-organizational partnership.

“Partnering amongst members of other organizations allows SIOP members to help raise awareness of the important contributions individuals are making to the field of I-O psychology; expand SIOP's reach more globally; encourage joint efforts, teamwork, and collaboration; increase knowledge sharing more widely for greater impact; more fully engage the membership; and build bridges,” Zugec noted.

Zugec said Korabik’s work is an excellent example of work that advances the understanding of women in leadership.

“Through her extensive body of work carried out over the past 40 years, Dr. Korabik has made outstanding theoretical, empirical, and applied contributions that have advanced our understanding of women and leadership in innumerable ways and that make her particularly suited to receive this award,” Zugec said

During her career, Korabik has researched myriad aspects of women in leadership, including how women in leadership positions see themselves and how others see them and interact with them. She has examined women in both formal and informal leadership positions, those in both male-dominated and gender-balanced settings, and those from many different cultures.

"I have come to see that gender dynamics in leadership are actually a subset of diversity dynamics in that the same processes apply to others who are members of numerically under-represented or lower status groups.”

“I have come to understand that there is a common set of underlying dynamics at work that prevents many women from achieving their full potential as leaders,” Korabik explained. “Moreover, I have come to see that gender dynamics in leadership are actually a subset of diversity dynamics in that the same processes apply to others who are members of numerically under-represented or lower status groups.”

With her colleague, SIOP Member Roya Ayman, Korabik formulated a multi-perspective theory of gender and leadership. According to this theory, women’s leadership is a function of: 1) their own internalized gender-role characteristics, 2) their physical gender which acts as a stimulus cue that affects their interactions with others, and 3) societal gender inequality which prescribes lower status for women than for men. This theory has provided much needed clarity to the field by giving researchers guidance about how gender should be conceptualized and operationalized.

“Women in leadership positions have to deal with negative stereotypes that others have of women leader; double standards of evaluation, which deem women’s work as less worthy than men’s; discrimination in pay and promotion; sexual harassment; and the extra burden of unpaid care work,” Karabik explained. “In addition, for men, the traits that make up the ideal leader stereotype are similar to those that define the ideal man. By contrast, women are placed in a double bind due to the fact that the stereotype of the ideal leader is incompatible with that of the ideal woman. Women leaders who try to fit in by displaying the ‘masculine’ stereotypical characteristics of the ideal leader are seen as competent, but unlikeable, whereas those who focus on the ‘feminine’ stereotypical characteristics of the ideal woman are viewed as likeable, but not competent leaders. This means that in order to avoid a negative backlash, women leaders need to adopt an androgynous approach that balances masculinity with femininity.”    

Korabik explained that women who aspire to leadership positions should expect to encounter very high levels of work overload coupled with a lack of organizational support for family life.

“Their normative requirements—long hours, frequent travel, relocation—present serious challenges for women with family responsibilities,” she explained.

“Their normative requirements—long hours, frequent travel, relocation—present serious challenges for women with family responsibilities,” she explained.

She noted that many high-level jobs are still structured to promote an “antiquated” male bread-winner model.

“However, even when women sacrifice family for career, do their best to emulate their male colleagues, and employ effective leadership styles and behaviors, they still often find themselves in situations where they are not taken seriously, their ideas are ignored or devalued, and they face barriers to their advancement,” Korabik explained. “The dynamics underlying gender and leadership are complex and intertwined. It is necessary to use a systemic approach to understand them and formulate interventions to deal with them. It is incumbent upon us as academics to give not only women leaders, but also their colleagues, their superiors, and their organizations the information they need to do so.

Although women are still encountering serious problems in some very male-dominated fields, such as certain STEM professions, politics, and the military, there has been definite progress in other areas, Korabik explained.

“I have seen many concrete changes for the better in my life—less overt sexual harassment, longer maternity leaves. Many of the young women I encounter are strong and confident and well-prepared to be the leaders of the future,” she said. “It is important to understand, however, that social structures—whether they be organizational, legal, or economic—are founded upon a set of cultural norms and values that are largely covert and very resistant to alteration and that we should not expect change to be rapid or easy to bring about.”

The Women and Leadership Affinity Group (WLAG) is an ILA community for those focused in advancing women in leadership including researchers, coaches, educators, and practitioners interested in generation resources, disseminating research, and fostering the development of female leaders.

The International Leadership Association (ILA) is the global network for all those who practice, study, and teach leadership. The ILA promotes a deeper understanding of leadership knowledge and practices for the greater good of individuals and communities worldwide.

Pictured (L to R): Sherylle Tan, Chair of ILA’s Women and Leadership Affinity Group and Karen Korabik, Professor Emeritus, University of Guelph.