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The Glass Ceiling: How Women Compare to Men as Leaders

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.


The Glass Ceiling

In 1978, little known Marilyn Loden, a mid-level manager at New York Telephone Co., was asked to attend the Women’s Exposition in New York City after the company’s only female vice president couldn’t make it.

While there, Marilyn and four other women joined a panel titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” which was to be discussing how women, and their self-image, were to blame for their lack of advancement in the workforce.

At New York Telephone, Loden had been tasked with exploring why more women weren’t entering management positions, an issue that was beginning to gain some attention at the national level.

The data she had gathered up to this point, however, told her the problem went well beyond what women wore, said or how they acted at the work place. She felt, as she later explained, “there was an invisible barrier to advancement that people didn’t recognize.”

That day, during the panel discussion, she called it the “glass ceiling.” The phrase struck a nerve among women. Today, we know it to mean “an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions.” (Merriam-Webster)

Besides being accepted in 1993 into the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, this phrase has appeared in a multitude of publications such as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, AdWeek, and many more. It has been uttered by some of the most well-known women in modern history.

Some of these women include Madelaine Albright, Aretha Franklin, Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton (Washington Post, Theresa Vargas, March 1, 2018)

In short, it has also become a standard expression among those concerned with the fair treatment of women in business or politics.

Since her appearance at the Women’s Exposition in New York City, Marilyn Loden has gone on to write three books about diversity in the work place and women’s leadership skills. The phrase "glass ceiling," on the other hand, has become two words that perfectly describe a very real barrier women face in accomplishing and reaching their true potential.

As we grapple with these issues, it is also important for society to come to the understanding that women possess a variety of leadership skills equal to and in some cases superior to their male counterparts. This article is about those skills as well as an objective comparison between both genders as it relates to leadership.

Women as Leaders

The question of whether women make good leaders goes beyond the perennial and even proverbial battle of the sexes. It is more in tune with the battle for recognition and equal rights that women have been waging, and often losing, going back to the emergence of agriculture and the ability of people to accumulate resources.

Today, although the gap in the workplace between the genders has somewhat narrowed, women continue to lag behind in many important areas. It is for this reason that the mantra of "equal pay for equal work" resonates loudly across all groups and organizations seeking to level the playing field in the fight for gender wage equality.

Sexual harassment has become an issue that has taken center stage with the women’s movement, consequently most corporations, NGOs and government agencies have acknowledged the importance of providing a safe work environment for women.

In spite of women having won partly or completely many of the battles the women’s movement has endeavored to overcome, there are still many areas that need continued struggle.

Anna Bissell—America's First Female CEO

Anna Bissell—America's First Female CEO

One area in which women are seriously lagging behind is in leadership roles that cut across business and government. While a record number of women are serving in both houses of Congress, the overall percentage between them is still a disappointing 24% in the House of Representatives and 25% in the Senate.

Governorship are equally lacking, as currently, only nine women are serving as governors of U.S. states, along with a woman mayor of the District of Columbia. And of course, as of yet, the United States has not had a woman president in its history.

On the business side of the equation, the number of women holding positions in the C-suites of American corporations is equally anemic. Currently, there are only twenty-five women CEO’s, less than ten COO’s and fifty-eight women CFO’s leading Fortune 500 companies. Board of director spots is no different, with only 17.9% being held by women.

In light of these lackluster numbers, we must ask ourselves: Are corporations and government agencies missing out on a resource that represents at least half of our population? If given the chance can women perform at the same or higher level than men? Compared to men, are women good leaders?

The question as to whether women can perform as well or better than men in leadership roles is not an easy one to answer, especially in light of the fact that the population of women in these roles is small. This makes it hard to get a large base of subjects to analyze, often giving way to results skewed in favor of outliers.

Key Takeaways

- Among Fortune 500 CEOs, only about one in 11 was female as of 2021.

- The ranks of female chief executives have more than doubled, however, in the past decade alone.

- Reasons often cited for a lack of gender diversity include women’s greater tendency to sacrifice career for family, conscious and unconscious bias, and a lack of mentorship opportunities.

— Investopedia, February 2022

Women Have to Work Harder to Prove Themselves

In a recent PEW survey, two-thirds of adults stated that they felt women have to work harder to “prove themselves.” This, in itself, points to the idea that without the type of gender bias women face today, the pool of female C-suite occupants would be much larger making it easier for a more accurate assessment of the competencies possessed by each gender.

However, in order to properly tackle this query, it would seem prudent to first try to come up with not only a definition but also the types or styles of leadership as well as the competencies needed to succeed, especially at the C-Suite level or president of a nation.

Acquiring a pure definition of leadership is as easy as reaching for any dictionary whether online or in book form as all of them will tell you that it is the action of leading a group of people, organization or even a country.

The difficulty begins to show when we start pealing the various layers of the onion in order to determine the composition and range of leadership and how different people perform within these parameters. Making matters worse, is the fact that many experts have weighed in on their perception of all the types, varieties, styles and dimensions of leadership, making this a subject that could fill volumes.

“Women are called difficult and tough when (1) we negotiate the best deal, (2) we are perfectionists in doing our job, (3) we are willing to work harder and longer than men are willing to, and (4) when we question anything — anything — that someone else is doing, particularly if that someone is a man.”

Georgette Mosbacher

Positive Leaders and Destructive Leaders

Looking at leadership from a broad perspective, we can say that there are two major categories representing opposite poles, which demonstrate the very essence of a leader. These two categories are positive leaders and destructive (negative) leaders.

Positive leaders motivate, inspire, guide, build people’s characters, recognize human potential and turn negative into positive outcomes. Ultimately, they make the team stronger.

On the other hand, negative or destructive leaders are by nature selfish, not concerned about the team’s objectives but only about furthering their own agenda. They instill fear, division, and hate and attempt only to accomplish those goals and objectives that build and embolden their twisted egos.

History holds many leaders that fit these two broad categories. Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Pol Pot are but a few whose names are easily recognizable by most people today as destructive or negative leaders.

Conversely, some of the leaders that most people perceive as positive are Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. Of course, within the context of this discussion, only positive leaders will be discussed.


Leadership Styles

Today, most experts point to various types of leadership styles. While the names assigned to each style vary depending on the author, the following are the types that seem to have validity and should be mentioned.

Transactional leaders: They guide or motivate followers in the direction of established goals. They do this by clarifying the roles and requirements needed to achieve positive outcomes. These leaders focus on the role of management and supervision that lead to organizational and group performance.

These leaders often perform their roles through systems of reward and punishment as well as by closely monitoring subordinates in order to ensure that expectations are met.

Transformational leaders: Those that inspire followers to transcend their own self-interests for the good of the organization. They focus on motivating followers to not only perform at high levels but to also develop their own careers, improve themselves and develop their own leadership potential.

Transformational leaders seek to transform the organization and followers in a positive way. They typically present their vision in compelling and motivational ways that bring the organization together allowing the members to act in an extraordinary fashion.

Charismatic leaders: These are enthusiastic, self-confident leaders whose personality and actions influence people to behave in certain ways. These are leaders with a vision and the ability to articulate that vision in such ways as to move their followers. They are willing to take risks to achieve their vision on one hand but are sensitive to the needs of the organization and to the follower on the other.

These are leaders who are excellent and skilled communicators. They are eloquent speakers who are able to connect to followers on a deep and emotional level. By arousing strong emotions in followers, they are able to move and inspire many people.

Visionary leaders: They are those leaders who create and articulate a realistic, credible, and attractive vision of the future that improves upon the present situation. They have the ability to explain their vision to others. They can express their vision not just verbally but through their exemplary behavior.

These are for the most part uncommon leaders who project openness, creativity, innovation, imagination, persistence, and conviction. They deeply care for people, seeing them as their greatest asset. They listen to others and learn from other people’s point of view.

These leaders create partnerships between them and their followers and create a shared sense of vision that develops team spirit and team learning.

Autocratic or authoritarian leaders: Those leaders who centralize power and decision-making in themselves. They give orders and assign tasks without consulting the employees. They do this by assuming full authority as well as full responsibility. They manage through threats and punishment utilizing close supervision, clear-cut direction and depend on a lesser degree of delegation.

Participative or democratic leaders: These are the leader who decentralizes authority. They take a consultative approach with their subordinates in formulating plans and policies encouraging participation and decision-making. These leaders mainly lead through persuasion and example rather than force.

The following chart shows how males and females have traditionally performed within each of the styles of leadership.


Women Make Excellent Transformational Leaders

What various studies and surveys show are that women excel as transformational leaders. Some of the reasons could be the fact that women are better communicators than men and are able to focus more on the team and what it takes to make them successful.

They also focus more on how goals should be achieved rather than immediate results. They understand the need to transform their teams into becoming more productive and more motivated. They also see the need to develop each individual within their team and typically are more personally engaged.

Men, on the other hand, gravitate more to a transactional approach. They view goals individually, requiring team performance as a sequence of independent transactions.

Their approach to individual or group team performance is viewed from the perspective of reward or punishment. Decision making is often reached individually with little explanation or consultation with subordinates. Transactional leaders are not as engaged with their teams as transformational leaders who view themselves as an integral part of the team they oversee.

Undoubtedly, transformational leaders view the performance from a longer-term perspective. Consequently, transformational leadership has proven to be an extremely successful approach.

These leaders are more capable of motivating their followers by engendering creativity, innovation as well as empowering them to take greater responsibility for their duties. Ultimately, inspiring team members to develop as professionals and become greater assets to the corporation or institution they serve.

Women Excel as Participative or Democratic Leaders

Women also exceed men’s performance as participative or democratic leaders as they emphasize collaboration and the free-flow of ideas. They tend to share responsibility through a broader cross-section of the team and allow for a more balanced and controlled discussion to take place.

Women democratic leaders typically hold positions in nonprofit organizations, school boards, think tanks and forward-thinking companies.

Women seem to lag behind men is in two very important styles of leadership: visionary and charismatic. A Harvard Business Review study conducted regarding the visionary ability of women leaders found that women scored lower on “envisioning,” which is the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends within their business environment and develop the type of strategic direction needed to take advantage of such vision.

The Charisma Deficit

At the same time, women face a problem best described as the “charisma deficit.” Hillary Clinton, whom President Obama described as “the most qualified candidate” to ever run for president, was largely viewed as a dull, bureaucratic wonk by a large percentage of the electorate.

The perception of charisma is also largely diminished in the case of women leaders when they are seen as working too hard to either improve themselves or advance their careers.

While this trait is at times seen as an asset in men, in women it is viewed as rancorous or catty. This perception represents a dilemma for women that is hard to escape since for years they have been forced into the trenches in order to outperform men by being more prepared and by working harder. Unfortunately, this same behavior often gets used against them in ways men don’t face.

Finally, autocratic or authoritative leadership is rarely used by women with the exception of those in the military or in correctional institutions. Currently, 30% of all officers in the U.S. military are women and 43 percent of all correction superintendents are female.

However, even in these professions, women bring attributes such as collaboration, communication, and empathy that greatly contribute to the tempering of some admittedly harsh environments.



In addition to leadership styles, leaders must also be evaluated on their competencies and abilities to perform certain functions important to achieving success in their roles.

While competencies are often a subjective measurement that in many cases has to do with the importance attributed to company or industry-specific qualities, there is broad agreement that the following are for the most part desirable skills across the board.

This, while also understanding that some competencies such as integrity, motivational skills, or any other attribute that requires enhanced cognitive capabilities are universally desired.

The following chart contains results of various surveys conducted on how women’s performance compares to men in various competencies.


Conclusion of Competencies

As it turns out, the differences between men and women as they relate to these 25 competencies are virtually imperceptible. Both genders are able to perform equally well with some slight variations that could be attributed to factors like gender bias, similar-to-me-bias, or any other biases that could affect how people evaluate performance.

While gender stereotypes have portrayed women as emotional, displaying less authority, as those able to take care of things while men take charge, facts have proven the opposite. The fact is that when private or public-sector organizations have more women leaders, they become more successful.

Resources and Further Reading

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.