Lorena Milla Pavon MSc International Business and Emerging Markets
The glass ceiling and sticky floor hinder women’s progression to leadership positions in organisations. But these phenomena are symptomatic of invisible structures, named 'gendering processes' by sociologist Joan Acker.

These produce gendered organisations, where everything from job evaluations to the ways in which people present themselves at work are based on roles assigned by society. Few women reach the tops of organisations, and the ones that do, tend to be the most privileged. Acker, along with the authors who have expanded on her work through the years, have helped us understand the barriers to women’s progression, which are very well documented.

This dissertation aims to find ways to dismantle gendering processes by studying enabling factors for female career progression. It fills a gap in the literature by delving into an under researched context: firms implementing sustainability strategies (called here environmentally progressive organisations, EPOs) in Mexico.

When women rise to the tops of organisations, firms perform better

The benefits of female leadership are well-documented. It has positive effects on board director attendance, accountability and risk-taking (Boutchkova et al., 2021). It improves women’s wage distribution across the firm and overall performance, especially in companies with female CEOs (Flabbi et al., 2019; Hoobler et al., 2018). It also improves the bottom line. In a survey by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), over 57% of respondents agreed that gender diversity improves business outcomes.[1] Women also open the door for other women. The gender wage gap at lower hierarchical levels tends to be smaller when women occupy high managerial jobs compared to when they do not.[2]

Over 30 years after Joan Acker[3] called for research to understand why inequality persisted in organisations with small progress having been made at the time, companies have increased their gender diversity efforts. In North America, female representation in top management positions increased by 4% between 2014-2019.[4] McKinsey (2019) also reports an overall improvement in representation on executive committees and boards across Europe. Firms, especially in the west, which have achieved gender parity, are now rethinking their working cultures to go beyond diversity initiatives, implementing ecosystems where diversity can be an organic part of the organisation.[5]

However, we are far from achieving equality everywhere. Progress has been uneven, firms which have achieved gender parity are not the rule. Across the world, although the number of women in entry-level and middle management positions is rising, very few reach the top, since they are promoted to managers “at far lower rates” than men.[6] Furthermore, worldwide and across all sectors, women experience the wage gap, earning, in average, 77 cents for each dollar men make (UNWOMEN, 2021), and are ten times less represented in top positions (Flabbi et al, 2019). This situation is worse for women of colour, who experience an even wider wage gap (Time’s Up, 2022) and less representation, especially at the top (McKinsey, 2021), where they account for only 4% of C-suite leaders.[7] In Mexico, where this research is focused, women make up just 4.6% of executive positions in publicly listed companies.[8]

The situation is not improving. According to the World Economic Forum (2021), closing the global gender gap will now take another generation, increasing from 99.5 years to 135.6 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The aim of this dissertation is to help to find ways to bolster women to leadership positions. To achieve this, I identify enabling factors for career progression through qualitative research.

Research questions

  • Which factors have enabled women in environmentally progressive organisations in Mexico to reach the top? Can they be categorised into macro (society, public and private sector-levels), meso (organisation-level) and micro (individual female leaders)?
  • Are environmentally progressive organisations perceived as more forward-thinking in their gender perspectives?
  • The women making it to the top positions are privileged. What is the perceived responsibility which that privilege entails?


Summary of key findings

To fulfil the research aims, I conducted 10 interviews with Mexican women leading climate action strategies at EPOs. The data from interviews, field notes and documents were analysed using the Gioia methodology[9] to produce second order themes and aggregate dimensions. These let to an inductive model showing dynamic interrelationships between enablers, perceptions of EPOs, and privilege. This theoretical contribution adds to our understanding of female leadership in Mexico, filling the research gap by adding insights to an under researched context.

Enablers were categorised into micro, meso and macro levels. At the micro level, personality factors (determination, passion for sustainability, proactive behaviour, alliance-building) and support from family and life partners were identified. At the meso level, organisational culture (informal support networks/mentoring), organisational policies (policies fitting women’s needs, training and development, increased visibility) and knowledge sharing with MNEs emerged. At the macro level, education and development and strengthening the public sector were identified as enablers.

Furthermore, it was found that EPOs are perceived as more progressive in their gender perspectives, which contradicts available literature. This could be explained by limitations in the studies consulted, which had broad scopes and thus lacked depth on one specific context. Another explanation could be a marked contrast between participants’ earlier and current jobs.

Finally, the perceived role of privilege is to use it to open doors for women. While most interviewees recognised the ways in which privilege had helped them to reach the top, an interesting insight was one comment overlooking the existence of privilege, in line with the myth of meritocracy.


[1] France-Massin, D. 2019. Women in leadership bring better business performance. International Labour Organization (ILO).

[2] Acker, J. (2009). 'From glass ceiling to inequality regimes', Sociologie du travail, 51, pp.199–217.
Cohen, P. N. and Huffman, M. L. (2007). 'Working for the woman? Female managers and the gender wage gap'. American Sociological Review, 72, pp.681-704.

[3] Acker, J. (1990). 'Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organizations'. Gender and Society,4, pp.139-158.

[4] Sancier-Sultan, S. S.-M., Julia; Garibian, Diana. (2019). 'Taking the lead for inclusion'. In: Company, M. (ed.) Women Matter. France McKinsey and Company.

[5] Sancier-Sultan, (2019).

[6] Thomas, R. C., Marianne; Mcshane Urban, Kate; Cardazone, Gina; Bohrer, Ali; Mahajan, Sonia; Yee, Lareina; Krivkovich, Alexis; Huang, Jess; Rambachan, Ishanaa; Burns, Tiffany; Trkulja, Tijana (2021). 'Women in the workplace 2021'. In: Company, M. (ed.). McKinsey and Company.

[7] Thomas et al. (2019).

[8] Camarena Adame, M. E. and Saavedra García, M. L. (2018). 'El techo de cristal en méxico. Revista de Estudios de Género'. La Ventana, 5, pp.312-347.

[9] Gioia, D. A., Corley, K. G. and Hamilton, A. L. (2013). 'Seeking qualitative rigor in inductive research: Notes on the gioia methodology'. Organizational Research Methods, 16, pp.15-31.

09 November 2022