Women in Leadership: Contextual Dynamics and Boundaries

May 26, 2011

More than 300 scientists have won a Nobel prize since the honour was established, Karin Klenke notes, but only 10 of them were women. In her latest study of women's leadership, Klenke provides a simple statistical reminder that institutions of higher education have traditionally been one of the contexts in which men have dominated positions of power and authority.

While leadership scholars have been exploring the characteristics of "great" leaders, how they have achieved leadership positions and the styles of leadership within different types of organisations, they have not considered their own backyard as a place where an examination of who leaders are, and what they look like, could offer insight on why some achieve power and others don't.

Higher education is just one of the contexts Women in Leadership presents as a site for in-depth consideration of why the number of women achieving leadership positions remains relatively low. Klenke argues that as organisations move from a local to a more global orientation, and to a focus on teams rather than on individuals, a greater understanding of the role of context is crucial for effective leadership to emerge.

The use of context as an organising framework reflects more recent academic research that moves away from society's seemingly insatiable need to discover the key to individual leaders' success and towards a focus on leadership as a relational process. Taking closer account of the variety of contexts in which leadership occurs gives us a greater capacity to make sense of the paradox of women's leadership; women make up almost half the workforce yet, as Cranfield School of Management's annual survey reveals, they constitute only 12.5 per cent of the FTSE 100 companies' boards of directors.

Klenke presents 10 contexts in which to study women's leadership, including history, the military, religion and spirituality, and sport. This breadth of empirical locations is a welcome addition to leadership studies, as it breaks away from the dominance of work organisations as sites of enquiry and immediately offers the potential for fresh insights on why it continues to be the case that most leaders are men.

Each chapter begins with a short biography of a female leader, and reading the list one cannot fail to be impressed by the extent of Klenke's research. We learn of Empress Theodora's joint reign of Byzantium with her husband Justinian in the 6th century, as well as the more familiar story of Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005 and a former Republican nominee for the US Senate.

The value of referring to research outside the leadership mainstream is particularly apparent in a section devoted to the relationship between charisma and religious leadership. Klenke notes that leaders such as Muhammad, Martin Luther and George Fox "emerged during periods of radical social change or were cut off from the mainstream of society". In this conception, "charisma does not stem from the leader's extraordinary personal qualities but (emerges) during periods of social upheaval" when social values change. Despite equal opportunities legislation in the UK, such as the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the more recent Equality Act (2006), some argue that it will require social upheaval on a radical scale before women gain equity in corporate boardrooms or within government. Either that or more national legislatures will need to mimic the Norwegian and French laws that require 40 per cent representation by women on top company boards.

This book offers fresh insight into the leadership phenomenon and reminds us that despite the slow pace of gender equality, women have been and continue to be leaders in a wide variety of contexts.

Women in Leadership: Contextual Dynamics and Boundaries

By Karin Klenke. Emerald Group, 350pp, £39.99. ISBN 9780857245618. Published 19 April 2011.

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