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Developmental challenges and barriers: How senior executive women cope with difficult situations in their careers

Katherine Copsinis Powell, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In large American corporations, even though women comprise almost 50% of the workforce and over 30% of management, less than 5% of senior managers are reported to be women. Successful senior executive women have developed strategies, skills and leadership styles to overcome challenges and barriers throughout different phases of their careers. Many complex factors contribute to executive women achieving senior positions. Several corporate barriers have been reported which may prevent senior executive women from being promoted to even higher positions. This study explained internal barriers, including self-confidence or personality traits, and external barriers, including gender biases or the 'old boys' network'. The purpose of this study was to explore how senior executive women cope with diffcult situations, perceive challenges and overcome barriers and to identify some of the factors that facilitated their advancement to senior executive positions. A related purpose was to examine developmental career patterns or stages that may have evolved during senior executive women's careers and compare these stages with other reported career stages. This qualitative descriptive inquiry consisted of interviews with twelve senior executive women located on the east coast of the United States. They described their perceived experiences, skills, coping styles and self-concepts. The key findings in this study included: (1) the complex way senior executive women developed and maintained self-confidence as well as educational and professional support systems; (2) their approaches to meeting challenges and overcoming barriers within the corporate culture; and (3) the way they developed their dynamic and eclectic leadership styles and skills needed to cope with difficult situations. The participants in this study were action-oriented and took charge of their careers, gathering the required resources and education to achieve senior level positions. They navigated within the corporate environment, avoiding obstacles and confronting challenges or overcoming barriers within the corporate culture to succeed. The results of this study were discussed in terms of five major themes that contributed to senior executive women's advancement: (1) navigating within changing corporate environments; (2) evolving into flexible leaders who make a corporate impact; (3) developing learning strategies and support systems vital for success; (4) reframing corporate barriers into challenges, and, (5) overcoming gender bias in the corporate culture.

Subject Area

Academic guidance counseling|Labor relations|Womens studies|Occupational psychology

Recommended Citation

Powell, Katherine Copsinis, "Developmental challenges and barriers: How senior executive women cope with difficult situations in their careers" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9909206.