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Women in positions of power

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Women in positions of power

Women in positions of power are women who hold an occupation that gives them great authority, influence, and/or responsibility. Throughout the world, historically as well as today, power has been distributed among the sexes disparately. Power and powerful positions have most often been associated with men as opposed to women, who are much less associated with powerful positions.[1] This holds true in most instances across time and place; those women who do hold powerful positions are the exception instead of the rule. However, in more recent times women are holding more and more powerful positions as gender equality increases, due to policy and, or, social reform.[2] Accurate and proportional representation of women in social systems has been shown to be important to long-lasting success of the system.[3] Additionally, a study shows that “absence is not merely a sign of disadvantage and disenfranchisement, but the exclusion of women from positions of power also compounds gender stereotypes and retards the pace of equalization".[3]


  • Position of power 1
  • Gender as a factor 2
  • Other factors 3
  • Traditional roles and stereotypes 4
  • Government 5
    • Voting 5.1
    • Quotas 5.2
    • International organizations 5.3
  • Industry and business 6
  • Academia 7
  • Contemporary examples 8
    • Africa 8.1
    • Nordic countries 8.2
    • Middle East 8.3
    • Latin America 8.4
    • India 8.5
  • See also 9
  • References 10

Position of power

Merriam Webster dictionary defines power as “possession of control, authority, or influence over others”, and as such, a position of power is a position that gives the holder power.[4] This power can be held over others in many different contexts, societally, organizationally, interpersonally, individually, and the interactions of each of these.[4] Occupational power refers to power over coworkers in the field, or extending to other areas. Positions of power can exist in almost any setting, from small scale, unofficial groups or clubs, all the way to the obvious leaders of nations or CEOs of companies. These more official situations are found in many areas, such as government, industry and business, science and academia, the media, and many other sectors.

Gender as a factor

Positions of power and gender are very intertwined. As one study pointed out, “Power differences frequently underlie what appear to be gender differences in behavior; as society is currently configured, power and gender are never independent".[4] As such, gender relates to power in the different ways power is acquired, used, and manifested. A 1988 journal article summarizes this relation between gender and power: "the idea that women and men differ in power motivation is reinforced by history and culture. In the history of the west, certainly, women have had less access to most forms of power than have men. Many people believe that men are interested in power and getting power while women are not. Others hold that men and women differ in the ways that they establish, maintain and express power".[5] Additionally, studies have shown that increasing women’s participation in leadership positions decreases corruption, as “women are less involved in bribery, and are less likely to condone bribe taking”.[6] A study on gender and corruption from 2000 also found that “cross-country data show that corruption is less severe where women hold a larger share of parliamentary seats and senior positions in the government bureaucracy, and comprise a larger share of the labor force”.[6]

Other factors

In addition to the male-female split in the distribution of positions of power, many other factors play a role in who has power. Race, class, sexuality, age, and other factors all play a significant part in who is in control.[7][8] These factors play in especially when coupled with the gender difference: research from the Journal of the National Association of Social Workers has found that the “double burden of racism and sexism exacts a toll on their mental health and restricts their opportunities”.[9] Additionally, according to another study, "the degree to which a system successfully includes women can indicate a propensity for the system to include other disenfranchised minorities".[3]

Traditional roles and stereotypes

Traditional roles for men and women in most cultures have relegated women to working in the home primarily, especially historically. This traditional role of fostering and nurturing others ensued from various sources, but the results are a decrease in the value of work done by women and a decreased ability to work outside the home.[10][11] This is paired with the societal expectation of the woman to take care of the home and family, and with that the lack of male support in the caretaking of the home. This all leads to the expectation that women have responsibilities in the home and often plays a part in occupational sexism.[10][11]

Other traditional views of women relegate them to certain occupations. The view of women as caretakers of the family extends beyond the familial unit to others. Women have traditionally been seen as caretakers, of both people and other beings and things[10][11] However, this caretaker occupation has most often been a subordinate one, under the direction of a superior, usually a man.[12] The example of the vastly female-dominated nurse occupation, 95% women as of the 2000s,[13] reflects this, as it is the doctors that ultimately are in charge and have the power in the nurse-doctor relationship.[12]

Traditional stereotypes of women make them out to be much more emotional and irrational than men, and thus less suited for many important jobs.[14][15] However, it has been found that while there is some basis to the stereotype, it does not hold true universally under statistical scrutiny.[14] One survey based in South Africa found that "over 30 per cent... are of the opinion that women are too emotional to be able to handle high level leadership positions";[16] evidently, stereotypes persist and still take effect.

Studies show that "it is common for stereotypical ideas about women's abilities to perform well in leadership positions to inform people's perceptions about women leaders".[16]


For many years and in most regions of the globe, politics had not allowed women to play a significant role in government. Even in the early 1900s, politics were viewed almost exclusively as the domain of men.[17] However, women’s movements and culture-changing events such as World War II gradually increased women’s rights and roles in politics.[17] Many factors go into the degree of female participation in governments across the world. One 1999 study found: "[the] electoral system structure, left party government, the timing of women's suffrage, the share of women in professional occupations, and cultural attitudes toward the role of women in politics each play a role in accounting for variation in the degree of gender inequality in political representation around the world”.[18] Even still, there are many other factors that play a serious role in female participation in government. There is a significant “perceived liability” to a party of having a female candidate for office, according to a 2005 study.[19] Even today, no country in the world has 50% or higher female participation in a national legislature, and 73% of countries have less than 20% female participation.[17]

There are multiple levels of power positions in the government from the local level to the national level. Accordingly, there are different degrees to which women partake in these different levels. For example, studies have found in India that "large scale membership of women in local councils" can be more effective in exerting influence, such as over crime rates, than "their presence in higher level leadership positions".[20] However, it is important to have women at all levels of government to ensure the representation as well as enacting of women's interests.[3]


Women were deprived of exercising political power in every country until granted the right to vote, the first country being New Zealand in 1893, and the most recent being black women in South Africa in 1993. After earning the right to vote, it often took decades for women to turn out to the polls in numbers proportional to their male counterparts.[21] In the U.S. today, women are statistically more likely to vote than men,[21] a pattern that occurs in certain countries, such as Scandinavian countries, while the opposite occurs in others, such as India.[17][21] Scandinavian countries are also some of the countries with greatest female representation in government positions.[17] Exercising the right to vote is a reflection of the power women feel they have in their political systems.

Today, women are enfranchised in all countries with a legislature other than Saudi Arabia. A 2006 study demonstrated that “although women have the legal right to vote and stand for elections in almost every country of the world, cultural barriers to women’s use of their political rights, including family resistance and illiteracy, remain”.[21] In the U.S. today, women are statistically more likely to vote than men.[21]


Many countries have instituted quotas dictating a minimum number of women to be given elected positions in governments. In general, the quota system has acted as a fast-track to incorporating greater female representation into the governing systems.[22] Several countries, such as Rwanda, which have established quota systems successfully have even recently surpassed traditionally highly gender representative countries based on the quota requirements.[22] However, there are still flaws to quota systems and there is some controversy over the effectiveness of representation,[23][24] as some studies have found actual policy change to be limited.[23][24]

International organizations

International bodies such as the UN have established goals for female representation in governing bodies. Thirty percent of elected position seats was recommended as the critical mass necessary to gain effective policy from female representation.[24] However, even these international bodies that promote female empowerment on many scales themselves lack proportional gender representation. On WorldHeritage’s List of current Permanent Representatives to the United Nations, of the 192 representatives, only 32 are women, which is only 16.67% female, barely over half of what they recommend for governing bodies. Additionally, of these 32 countries represented by women, only three, the United States, Singapore, and Luxembourg, are considered core countries, making women-represented core countries only an even smaller percentage.

Industry and business

Most top and high-power positions in businesses and companies are held by men.[25] Women currently hold 4.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEO roles and 4.4 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO roles.[26] Research has shown “a consistent difference favoring men in accessibility to, and utility of, resources for power”.[27] Thus, business and industry worldwide still sees a harsh split between the genders in terms of who has control.[25]

However, having women in leadership positions in can be in the company’s best interests. Studies have found that gender diversity in top-level boards means broader perspectives and opinions, which result in more comprehensive outcomes.[28] A study on firms in Denmark found that “the proportion of women in top management jobs tends to have positive effects on firm performance, even after controlling for numerous characteristics of the firm and direction of causality”.[29] Additionally, a 2004 study from Bottom Line found that: “Companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance than companies with the lowest women’s representation”.[30]

In order to try to achieve greater gender equality in workplace leadership positions, the European Union established a goal to have 40% women in non-executive board-member positions in publicly listed companies by 2020.[31]


In academia as well, much remains to be accomplished in terms of gender equality. Many departments, especially those in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, are heavily male-dominated.[32]

Women achieve disproportionately less prestige and success in academia than their male counterparts.[33] They are less likely to be tenured and to receive promotions to more influential or powerful positions.[34] Women in academia also earn a lower income, on average, than their male counterparts, even when adjusted.[34] While hiring of women in academic fields has been on a slight rise, it is mainly in entry-level occupations and not for high-level positions where women are most lacking.[33] Integrating women more thoroughly into academia is important to developing future gender equality as well as greater research outcomes.

Contemporary examples


Most countries in Africa leave women without easy avenues to powerful positions in any area. However, there are some exceptions, such as Rwanda. Rwanda, with their new constitution after the conclusion of the Rwandan Civil War, it was written in that 30% of policy-making positions must be allocated to women.[17] In 2003 with the first election of the new constitution, Rwanda surpassed Sweden to be the country with the highest percentage of women in its parliament with 48.8%.[17]

Nordic countries

Norway, Sweden, Finland, and other countries in Scandinavia have had long-established parliaments and have gone through a long, slow process of integrating women into power positions. As a result, Sweden is the country with the second highest rate of female participation in government, behind Rwanda.[17]

Middle East

The Middle East is home to some of the most female-oppressive countries, such as Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to vote. However, some countries, especially more liberal ones such as the United Arab Emirates, many women are making progress toward greater power.

Latin America

The prime example of integration of women into powerful positions in Latin America is Argentina, the first country in the world to adopt a quota system, requiring 15% female participation in the electoral system in 1990.[17] Additionally, Chile’s current president is a woman, Michelle Bachelet.


One of the highly significant things and provisions introduced by the new Companies Act of India, is the mandatory inclusion of at least one woman director to the Board of every prescribed class of companies in India. This provision can be considered as revolutionary initiation by the Government of India, for the purposes of empowerment of the women in the Indian Corporate world thereby strengthening and promotong contributions of women to the economic progress of the country.

See also


  1. ^ Hartsock, N. (1990). Foucault on power: a theory for women?. Feminism/postmodernism, 162.
  2. ^ Cockburn, C. (1991). In the way of women: Men's resistance to sex equality in organizations (No. 18). Cornell University Press.
  3. ^ a b c d Reynolds, A. (1999). Women in the Legislatures and Executives of the World. World Politics, 51(4), 547-573.
  4. ^ a b c Yoder, J. D., & Kahn, A. S. (1992). Toward a feminist understanding of women and power. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 16(4), 381-388.
  5. ^ Winter, D. G., & Barenbaum, N. B. (1985). Responsibility and the power motive in women and men. Journal of Personality, 53(2), 335-355.
  6. ^ a b Swamy, A., Knack, S., Lee, Y., & Azfar, O. (2003). Gender and corruption. Democracy, Governance and Growth, edited by Stephen Knack, 191-224.
  7. ^ Zweigenhaft, R. L., & Domhoff, G. W. (1998). Diversity in the power elite: Have women and minorities reached the top? (Vol. 670). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  8. ^ Acker, J. (2006). Inequality regimes gender, class, and race in organizations. Gender & Society, 20(4), 441-464.
  9. ^ Gutierrez, L. M. (1990). Working with women of color: An empowerment perspective. Social work, 35(2), 149-153.
  10. ^ a b c Miller, J. B. (1982). Women and power (Vol. 1). Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies, Wellesley College.
  11. ^ a b c Pleck, J. H. (1977). The work-family role system. Social problems, 417-427.
  12. ^ a b Lorber, J. (1984). Women physicians: Careers, status, and power (Vol. 281). New York: Tavistock Publications.
  13. ^ Evans, J., & Frank, B. (2003). Contradictions and tensions: Exploring relations of masculinities in the numerically female-dominated nursing profession. The Journal of Men's Studies, 11(3), 277-292.
  14. ^ a b Barrett, L. F., Robin, L., Pietromonaco, P. R., & Eyssell, K. M. (1998). Are women the “more emotional” sex? Evidence from emotional experiences in social context. Cognition & Emotion, 12(4), 555-578.
  15. ^ Goldenberg, J. L., & Roberts, T. A. (2013). Throughout the history of the sexes, women have been perceived as inferior to men, but also have been elevated to the status of goddesses on earth. We suggest that these para-doxical biases often associated with women can be linked to an existential need to distance humanity from the natural world. The sources of discrimination against women are most commonly associated with their biological nature. For example, women are devalued for be-ing more emotional than men, less rational, physically weaker, and .... Handbook of experimental existential psychology, 71.
  16. ^ a b 9. Gouws, A., & Kotzé, H. (2007). Women in leadership positions in South Africa: The role of values. Politikon, 34(2), 165-185.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i Paxton, P., & Hughes, M. M. (2007). Women, politics, and power: A global perspective. Pine Forge Press.
  18. ^ Kenworthy, L., & Malami, M. (1999). Gender inequality in political representation: A worldwide comparative analysis. Social Forces, 78(1), 235-268.
  19. ^ Kunovich, S., & Paxton, P. (2005). Pathways to Power: The Role of Political Parties in Women’s National Political Representation1. American Journal of Sociology, 111(2), 505-552.
  20. ^ Iyer, L., Mani, A., Mishra, P., & Topalova, P. (2011). The power of political voice: Women’s political representation and crime in India. Harvard Business School BGIE Unit Working Paper, (11-092).
  21. ^ a b c d e Pintor, R. L., & Gratschew, M. (2002). Voter turnout since 1945: a global report.
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^ a b c
  25. ^ a b Daily, C. M., Certo, S. T., & Dalton, D. R. (1999). Research notes and communications a decade of corporate women: Some progress in the boardroom, none in the executive suite. Strategic Management Journal, 20(1), 93-99.
  26. ^ "Women CEOs of the Fortune 1000". Catalyst. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  27. ^ Ragins, B. R., & Sundstrom, E. (1989). Gender and power in organizations: A longitudinal perspective. Psychological bulletin, 105(1), 51.
  28. ^ European Union. European Commission. Women on Boards - Factsheet 1 The Economic Arguments. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. .
  29. ^ Smith, N., Smith, V., & Verner, M. (2006). Do women in top management affect firm performance? A panel study of 2,500 Danish firms. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 55(7), 569-593.
  30. ^ "The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Gender Diversity." Catalyst. Equity in Business Leadership, 15 Jan. 2004. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
  31. ^ "Women on Boards: Commission Proposes 40% Objective." EUROPA. European Commission, 14 Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
  32. ^ Story, M. O. T., & Academia, W. I. (2005). Women faculty make little progress. Education, 83(44), 38-39.
  33. ^ a b Clark, S. M., & Corcoran, M. (1986). Perspectives in the professional socialization of women faculty: A case of accumulative disadvantage?. Journal of Higher Education.
  34. ^ a b Winkler, J. A. (2000). Focus Section: Women in Geography in the 21st Century: Faculty Reappointment, Tenure, and Promotion: Barriers for Women. The Professional Geographer, 52(4), 737-750.
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