Women's motivation to lead in social enterprises: a systematic literature review

Victoria L. Stewart, Kae Reynolds, Viviana Meschitti

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Social justice in terms of gender inequality in the workforce and in leadership remain the subject of heated debate both academically and in practice. Prevailing discourse around the gender pay gap also continues to mull over the role of women’s choices in systemic inequality. Despite the fact that the third sector in the UK has a wider variety of employees and a higher ratio of female employees than the private sector, these inequalities of women in leadership persist. Against this background, this systematic review explores extant literature on the motivation of women to lead in non-profit organisations in the United Kingdom. Motivation can be seen as influenced by a number of factors, whether cognitive or affective (Elprana et al., 2015), and it can have an ethical component. Borgerson (2007) theorised that selflessness and the care of others is seen as a fundamentally female trait and consequently the ethic of care (selflessness) is a fundamentally feminine ethic. This essentialization of female motivation may in turn drive the perception of volunteering and working in the non-profit sector as a female activity. Considering the unique context of the voluntary workforce, its gender composition, this paper examines gendered assumptions of social roles, motivation, and leadership. This systematic literature review extends the studies of Lee (2014) and Prouteau and Tabariés (2010) on women and voluntary organisations. The results of the study provide new insight into women’s motivation to lead and motivation to opt out of leadership, suggesting there is a difference in the motivation of women and men to lead in the non-profit sector in the UK that is delineated along ethical motivation and the core values of men and women. Findings show when remuneration and monetary reward and organisational size are not factors, other factors come into play and differentiate the motivation to lead between women and men. Analysis from this review points to a direct link between personal values and those of the organisation.The literature included in this review suggested that women aspire to lead in the context of voluntary organisations and particularly in small and micro social enterprises because they believe in the cause and feel ethically driven by the potential to be agents of change: making a difference to both the organisation, the cause it serves, and themselves. The findings of this review pose implications for recruitment and development of leaders in the volunteer sector and provides further indications for diversifying executive positions. Particularly larger organisations need to examine their culture and assess the degree to which it fosters an environment supportive of women’s leadership development that is guided by the role of being a change agent, making a difference, being part of a community, and asserting autonomy within a female-friendly pollical environment. Findings and implications are limited in scope by the geographical focus and the exclusion of ‘grey literature’ from the study, as well as the nature of secondary research.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2021
EventGender, Work and Organization Conference 2021: Transforming Contexts, Transforming Selves: Gender in New Times - University of Kent, Canterbury , United Kingdom
Duration: 30 Jun 20212 Jul 2021
Conference number: 11th Biennial International Interdisciplinary Conference


ConferenceGender, Work and Organization Conference 2021
Abbreviated titleGWO2020
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Leadership
  • Ethics
  • Gender
  • Women's leadership


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