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Our research compares and contrasts literature on women in leadership from the Arab Middle East (AME) region and the West in terms of theory and context. We consider these two literatures together, and aim to extend the established theoretical foundations for women and leadership research by incorporating AME context-relevant factors.
The issue of women and leadership has generated considerable research over the last three decades, drawing from psychology, sociology and business literatures (Mayrhofer, Iellatchitch, Meyer et al, 2004). The majority of this literature has been located in the Western context, and is drawn from theoretical perspectives developed largely in the West. This literature has continued to develop as women’s management and leadership issues have evolved (Eagly and Heilman, 2016). While much has been learnt from this body of research, three important gaps in our knowledge of this topic emerge.
First, there has been relatively little research on gender and leadership in the non-Western countries and regions. As an example of this, the literature from the AME region is still in its infancy, despite some rich material coming from researchers in the region, covering women’s career and leadership issues (e.g. Kemp, Madsen and El-Saidi, 2014; Tlaiss, 2014a). Second, research from non-Western countries is in need of theory. In the AME setting, very little theory development has occurred within this body of research, and the small amount of attention paid to theoretical underpinnings has largely been borrowed from the mainstream Western literature (Iellatchitch, Mayrohofer and Meyer, 2003; Tlaiss 2014a). However, as these and other authors (e.g. Inkson, 2006; Ituma, Simpson, Ovadje, Cornelius, and Mordi, 2011) note, the relevance of these theories in non-Western contexts must be questioned. They highlight, especially, the issue of (country-regional level context). Most studies from the AME region have shown that a range of contextual factors (e.g. culture, tradition, family, institutional factors etc.) play an important role in the pathway of career and leadership development among women. Thus, context for this region, particularly socio-cultural context, becomes a critical issue to consider (Omair, 2011). Third, while stereotypes and prejudice have received a high level of research attention regarding their impact on the under-representation of women in leadership roles, these constructs require considerably more investigation (Eagly and Heilman, 2016).
Findings from this study confirms that the AME literature focuses strongly on contextual factors relating to the region, and less on theory explaining their impact, while the Western literature pays less attention to the influence of context, and more to theoretical explanations.
While emerging literature from AME research alludes to various contextual considerations leading to stereotypes, prejudice and underrepresentation of women, such as societal, structural and cultural barriers influencing women’s career progress, few of these provide a theoretical foundation or draw on theory to explain their findings. For example, some articles discuss the role of agency, but other researchers suggest the need more nuanced interpretations, including the attributional processes at play, in divergent contexts (Eagly & Carli, 2003a,b; Heilman, 2001). On the other hand, we have also argued that there has been relatively little attention given to context in the Western literature, although there are some proponents of a contextual view within this research community (Brescoll, 2016). This author provides evidence that the communal and agentic explanations proposed by theory might not give a holistic view, as the rules for emotional display might vary across cultures and hence must be considered when explaining penalties faced by women. Given the two perspectives of theory and context, our study defines many aspects of the AME research findings that could enrich, extend, or develop new theory by drawing on established theoretical perspectives from the West, and contextualizing them accordingly.
Our conceptual study, therefore, considers these two literatures (Western and AME) together, with the aim of extending the established theoretical foundations for women and leadership research with context-relevant variables important to the AME region. Using a convergence-divergence theory approach to compare the literatures, we develop a conceptual framework that takes account of theory-derived concepts, as well as context, in explaining specific outcomes leading to the under-representation of women in leadership roles. Following recent calls in the literature, we focus on stereotypes, specifically stereotype threat, and prejudice as key outcome variables.