Jean Lau Chin Ed.D.


Why Aren’t There More Women Leaders?

Double binds and mazes

Posted Jul 06, 2019

Why aren’t there more women leaders in the world today? 

My last blog, "What does leadership mean today?" is now expanded with a focus on women leadership. I raise these questions toward creating a mindset to promote leadership for change. 

Women are underrepresented in virtually all types of leadership. Women make up only 23 percent of chief executives in U.S. organizations, and only 17 percent of the U.S. Congress. Of about 190 heads of state in the world, only 22 of them are women (11 percent). White men make up 84 percent of these seats when they only account for 31 percent of the U.S. population. In Barron’s 2016 list of the World’s Best CEOs, all 30 are men. White men from North America or Europe largely make up top positions of leadership and influence. Is this the reality of who are the best leaders? Or, is this because of the lens through which we view excellence in leadership? Is there room at the top for women leaders, or will those who make it to the top end up largely looking and acting like those who are already there?

The challenge for women leaders

Leadership studies conducted by Chin & Trimble (2014) found that the intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender influence how leadership is exercised. Women tend to prefer humane and collaborative leadership styles over transformational and charismatic leadership styles. For many, their lived experiences of bias because of gender often result in embracing social justice goals and ethical and cultural values when in leadership roles. Many women leaders across varying ethnic backgrounds eschewed charismatic types of leadership that they characterize as self-centered, showy, and arrogant. Many have experienced challenges to their competency as leaders because they were women. As a result, many often adopted a self-protective and affirmative paradigm to counter these negative perceptions and stereotypic expectations.

Chin & Trimble (2015) propose a Diverse-Leader-Member-Organizational Exchange Model (DLMOX) that considers the diversity of leaders and members as well as the societal and organizational contexts interacting to co-create leadership. Social identities of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. often shape perceptions and expectations of leaders, while leaders also bring their different worldviews and lived experiences to their leadership. This contrasts with earlier theories of leadership that focus on the leader and/or organizational context with little attention to what differences of culture and social identities bring. For example, in-group members are favored in LMX theories of leadership and are given greater responsibility, influence, and access to resources (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995)—thus, favoring those with more privilege already in positions of dominance and power.

Navigating a labyrinth
Source: Shutterstock

Double Binds and Mazes

While we place great emphasis on leadership development today, we often do little to address issues of diversity and leadership. These are about competencies as a process as opposed to a specific skill. Learning “who you are” and what of yourself you bring to your leadership is an important first start. Each of us has multiple social identities—race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. Some are more visible; some are more privileged. All intersect with each other and with our identity as a leader. Perceptions and expectations about women often lead to stereotypes and biases that are then incongruous with being a leader. Stereotypes of white men also exist, but they are often viewed as natural-born leaders—a privilege that is mostly invisible, as privilege often is to those who have it.

For women, being a leader is often an oxymoron. Why is it that a woman who is a leader is a woman leader while a man is simply a leader? This reflects an underlying belief that men are the natural leaders—an image that is reinforced in the media on a daily basis. Women are often portrayed in the media by their fashion rather than their accomplishments. This creates double binds for women who are expected to behave as women (e.g., soft and feminine), but then are called weak. When they are strong or behave more like men, they are called the “b” word. Strong women political leaders have been commonly nicknamed as an “Iron Lady.”   

We have come a long way since the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the 1920s gaining the right to vote or the Women’s Movement of the 1960s demanding equity. Or perhaps we have regressed in the 21st century with a new onslaught against women in today’s social and political environment—with a president emboldening people to speak out against abortion and choice or condoning treating women as objects. It is more important than ever for women not only to be “at the table,” but also to “be at the head of the table”—in leadership roles—if we are to have a Future Forward Together.

Social Identities

My research on leadership (Chin & Trimble, 2015; Chin, 2013) continues to find that women frequently: 1) experience challenges to their leadership, 2) are questioned about their legitimacy as leaders, 3) are evaluated more negatively than men doing the same job, and 4) face performance expectations often associated with their social identities rather than their leadership.

Lived Experiences

I have also found that women leaders tend to embrace social justice and humanistic outcomes in their leadership often related to their lived experiences with oppression, inequity, and marginalization. Despite the prominence of transformational leadership today and the fact that women tend to be more transformational than men (Eagly, xxxx), I have found most women less likely to choose Charisma/Value-Based leadership style as their preferred leadership style and more likely to choose collaborative and participative forms of leadership.


Twentieth-century leadership was characterized by a conqueror-colonial mentality, leading to a preference for a command-and-control model of leadership. People wanted leaders they could view as the best and strongest, able to win and conquer those who were not—it paved the way for Dwight D. Eisenhower, a 4-star general back from winning WWII, to become our next president. For many, this was the epitome of the "Alpha Male"—aggressive, competitive, highly achievement-focused, and determined, along with some of the more noxious characteristics of impatience, stubbornness, self-centeredness, one who blames others or glory mongers.   

As women first entered the workforce and became leaders in the 1950s, they began to emulate men. They dressed like them in three-piece suits and ties, acted like them, smoking and cursing, etc. But did we really want an Alpha Male replaced by an Alpha Female? As rapid changes became the norm with the onset of the Digital Age, we became less constrained by the rules of the past. We were more about change and transformation. We moved toward different models of leadership—transformational, servant, authentic, and ethical.   

Transformational leaders raise the bar by appealing to higher ideals and values of followers; they may model the values themselves or use charismatic methods to attract people to the values and to themselves as leaders (Burns, 1978). As our societal contexts have evolved from a post-colonial and post-industrial society, we saw a shift from power to dominate to power to guide, characterized by the Women’s Movement and Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. A growing emphasis on virtue and ethics involving leadership as caring for others and benevolence as opposed to dominance and influence emerged, especially after the Enron crisis of fraud in the 1990s. This paved the way for “female” characteristics being more valued for our leaders. But despite the growing diversity in our society and institutions and more women in leadership roles today, our leadership models have not become more inclusive and diverse. We need leadership that is about interdependence, collaboration, and relationships, about inspiration, vision, and change for the greater good.

What do women and diverse leaders bring?

Women have embraced transformational leadership, because it appeals to ideals and values of vision, inspiration, and innovation; its emphasis on change was apropos to women having to challenge the status quo to get to equity. Women tend to prefer collaborative leadership, choosing to cooperate in order to accomplish a shared outcome; they are more likely to accept responsibility for building and helping to ensure the success of a heterogeneous team, and shift from a power to empowerment paradigm. Women tend to focus on people, i.e., building relationships, not the task, i.e., getting things done, in their leadership compared to white men. This relationship orientation is consistent with prevailing social expectations where women learn to be communal, friendly, and unselfish. However, this leads to their being viewed as weak and dependent while men are viewed as logical, independent, and competent—as getting the task done. While the GLOBE studies (House, 2004) identified self-protection as a leadership dimension with low endorsement, Chin (2013) found that women leaders often felt the need for developing mechanisms of self-protection in response to the frequent barrage about needing to prove their competence.

Preparing yourself to lead

As the world about us rapidly changes, we face a future that demands new leadership skills for an increasingly global and diverse society. For women who faced the glass ceiling, there is a path to leadership, but the path to get there is through navigating a labyrinth (Eagly & Carli, 2007). It is time to remove the barriers, find the mentors, and provide opportunities for women to lead. What can women do about the challenges they face? Must women shape their identities and behaviors to stereotypic expectations to be a leader? 

My answer is simple: Recognize the strengths you bring and use an affirmative paradigm. Recognize the unconscious expectations and biases people have about women and ask how they constrain your leadership. Consider the following for Using an Affirmative Paradigm:

  • Courage — having the emotional strength and will to accomplish your goals amidst opposition; having the resolve to take risks even if no one else agrees.
  • Resiliency — standing up to being different and overcoming negative perceptions and expectations; getting up after you’ve been put down.
  • Integrity — having that moral compass and doing the right thing.
  • Confidence believing in yourself. Sometimes under the pressures of inexperience, biased portrayals, or unwarranted criticisms, you may need to “fake it until you make it.”
  • Positional Leadership — a title can bolster your initial credibility when your experience has been “always having to prove yourself.”

Look forward to my next blog on diversity leadership, and more.  


Chin, J. L. (2013) Diversity Leadership: Influence of Ethnicity, Gender, and Minority Status, Open Journal of Leadership, 2(1), 1-10 in SciRes (                                 ,

 Jean Lau Chin Chin, J. L. & Trimble, J. (2015).  Diversity and Leadership.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Chin, J. L.  (2009). (Ed) Diversity in Mind and in Action. Westport, CN: Praeger Publishers.

Chin, J. L., Lott, B., Rice, J., & Sanchez-Hucles, J.  (2007). (Eds)  Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Diverse Voices.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Graen, G. B. & Uhl-Bien, M.  (1995).  "Relationship-Based Approach to Leadership: Development of Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) Theory of Leadership over 25 Years: Applying a Multi-Level Multi-Domain Perspective". Management Department Faculty Publications, 57.

Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2007). Leadership for the common good. Through the labyrinth: The truth about how women become leaders. Boston, MA, US:  Harvard Business School Press.