It seems that women are unable to shake off supportive and caring roles and occupy high leading positions. Researchers have named the first phenomenon the sticky ground effect and the other the glass ceiling effect. Even though every year more and more women make their way towards high, decision-making positions, I believe the situation is by no means satisfactory, for there are incomparably more women who dispose of both the formal and informal knowledge required to reach such positions. Nor is it enough that Slovenia had a female prime minister, since we are far from the European average regarding the number of women occupying the leading positions in political parties, or that we had a female university rector while female university professors are still in a minority in senior positions when compared to their male colleagues.
Horizontal segregation, meaning the under-representation of women in certain fields and professions as well as their concentration in others (in this case some people talk about the feminisation of professions) is a problem, but this article will focus mainly on vertical segregation, i.e. the under-representation of women in the highest positions as it explicitly shows how, despite there being enough educated and competent women in a certain field, they have difficulties (or no chance at all of) advancing to better-paid, more respected and responsible positions.
The problem is multifaceted and it seems unjustified to be satisfied with those rare women who actually make it (even though they serve as a good role model for those women who want to advance in their career). Women should be perceived as a heterogeneous group that faces some common development tasks, goals and especially hurdles that are based on one single characteristic – their gender. One of the hurdles is the difficulty of getting promoted, even though they possess everything necessary (from education to personal characteristics) to assume the highest positions.
The problem in my opinion is a systemic one. To improve the position of women as a group and not only of some individuals who are faced with structural pressures making them either submit to the role of superwoman (the perfect care provider, mother and wife, a smart, beautiful and happy individual and a popular leader) or hide their female identity in order to survive and secure a fairly decent amount of respect in this male-centred (business and political) culture, it is necessary to implement measures on a systemic level. Of course, all these measures result from the efforts of progressive individuals and small progressive groups, whose persistent activities change even the most rigid elements in society. I wish that women were more aware of this, that they would first of all recognise this problem on a personal as well as a collective level and then unite in a more active way, taking systematic social action in order to effect change, as the individualist stance and non-systematic action rarely lead to change and improve the position of specific groups of people.
Such institutional changes that allowed women broader access to high positions in the first place include the establishment of (free) kindergartens and staff canteens, adequate and paid maternity leave, organised care for the elderly, etc. These measures at least partially relieve women of their care taking obligations. Also of great importance are institutional measures with regard to equal opportunities for education and work at all levels that aim to eliminate all those statutory provisions defining inequality. Destroying the welfare state essentially poses a serious threat to gender equality, which is shown not only by trends within individual countries in the transition period between socialism and capitalism, but also by comparing capitalist societies (like Switzerland) and post-socialist societies (like Slovenia), where gender equality is generally higher.
The next aspect of the problem is society’s silent assumptions or implicit theories. Regardless of change at the institutional level, which actually do transform the way of life to some extent, women have become or remained materialistically and morally overloaded within the family sphere and outside it, which has been understood simply as a logical consequence of their “natural role” and an essential component of womanhood. These assumptions are based on the maternal function of women that involves tying a woman to her home and giving her special obligations and responsibilities towards children (and her husband), which affects both the social and individual life of women (and men) and significantly influences the relative power, influence and benefits enjoyed by men and women. Some women defy these pressures by trying to develop their academic skills in fields that comply with their implicitly attributed natural role (working with children or in caring professions, which consequently leads to horizontal segregation).
Changing these silent assumptions is a long-term process involving interaction with systemic changes and taking action on an individual level. To deconstruct current assumptions and construct new ones, it is important to take into account the representation of women and men in a society and the images that surround us, which makes it important for women, among other things, to get media exposure and assume their place in the public sphere.
The third aspect of the problem is the individual one. It involves determining what a woman as an individual can do to strengthen her position or achieve a better one. Some people believe that a woman should take advantage of her “female nature” and that nurturing and communicational skills as well as relation management skills will help her become recognised as a leader. This approach will not liberate a woman from patriarchal pressures and make her the perfect woman who suits everybody. According to Howard L. Smith and Mary Grenier (source), women can improve their influence by taking part in activities that are important for an organisation or a political group, or those that reduce insecurity in organisations and, most importantly, by monitoring resources like money, information and people.
Better representation of women in leading and decision-making positions can thus only be achieved by taking action on a social and individual level. I see the problem in individualisation on the one hand and in naïveté on the other. To make significant changes it is crucial that women participate in progressive movements and take on some social responsibility. At the end of the day, every high position brings responsibility and it may be this very responsibility towards society and towards each other that can lead women to more important positions.
Author: Mojca Svetek, psychology student and representative of the Department of Psychology in the Student Organisation, member of progressive student and feminist groups and initiator of a pro-feminist work group within the student organisation Iskra. Her interests include the psychology of social gender, feminist theory, the naturalisation and (re)production of the gender hierarchy, and the effects of socio-economic status on outcomes in life. She is also the author of a Wiki article about women in leading positions.
Translated by: Tanja Breznik.