I started my PhD journey a little over a year ago when my husband and I decided to make the move to Aberdeen, Scotland, from Anchorage, Alaska. My mind began to race. I realized that I had the opportunity to move away from a career in marketing and could choose to focus on an issue that appealed to my penchant for activism for the entirety of three years. What at first felt like a luxury, soon began to weigh me down. Three whole years. How could I make that time count?
Well, I’m still figuring that out, but one thing became exceedingly apparent as I delved into my literature review. I realized that my generic ‘women in leadership’ topic had been done – a few hundred times over. So I read and I narrowed and I searched for what would give my work the most meaning. First, I constricted my focus to include industries that had high earning potential but were traditionally male-dominated (STEM). Then, I looked at which populations were having the most trouble moving from entry-level to senior leadership positions. That led me to intersectionality.
Intersectionality theory was first introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw way back in 1989 to describe how multiple social identities can affect the way in which an individual interacts and is interacted with by the rest of the world. Simply put, the experiences of a white, able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual woman such as myself were not going to be the same experiences as an African-American woman, a woman coming from abject poverty, a disabled woman and so on. And this is reflected in the numbers when you look at the demographics of leadership in organizations.
The chart above depicts the difference between private sector workforce and private sector senior-level executives. While white men make up 33.6% of the overall workforce, they almost double in number among senior-level positions. Surprisingly, white women make up almost 30% of the workforce and 24% of senior-level positions. This number is actually pretty good, especially when you compare it to minority women who are barely represented in leadership positions at all. For example, while black women make up 7.9% of the workforce, they represent less than 2% of the senior leadership roles. This statistic is more reflective of the experiences of black men, rather than white women, who make up 6.5% of the workforce and 1.6% of the senior leadership positions. Focusing on gender alone does not tell the entire picture of inequality at the top levels of private firms.
Despite my trepidation of infringing on an area I couldn’t speak to from experience, I felt it was important to address specifically that the intersection of race and gender has made achieving a leadership position much more difficult for minority women than white women particularly in the US and UK. Thus, I began to incorporate an intersectional lens to my theoretical framework.
Intersectionality can be a difficult theory to adopt as a truly intersectional analysis would look exclusively at a very narrow subset of woman that is affected by identical statuses. For example, how do able-bodied, heterosexual, Hispanic women in their 30s with child care responsibilities navigate career progression and define success? By adopting intersectionality as a tertiary aspect of my framework, I hope to incorporate diversity within my interview pool which reflects the general demographics of the workplace and also address that the experiences of the women I hope to interview will be wholly different from one another based on other aspects of their personality, sexuality, culture, etc.
Through the introduction of intersectionality into my theoretical framework I hope to address the issue that minority women face different and steeper barriers to leadership than white women, specifically in the US and UK. Furthermore, diverse leadership teams are reported to increase innovation, creativity and even financial performance when the impetus for change comes from within a firm. Therefore it is mutually beneficial for women and the firms who employ them to find ways to incorporate diversity within their leadership.
By Lauren Riley
Lauren Riley is a first-year PhD research student at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Her dissertation will investigate the internal, cultural and organizational barriers that women experience when pursuing a leadership position in STEM. Comments and further discussion on this blog, intersectionality, and women in leadership are welcomed at email@example.com.
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