Female Leadership Within the Military: The Influence of Neoliberal Institutionalism

  • Derek McAvoy
  • Kevin Burgess
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Leadership and Followership book series (PASTLEFO)


Approximately one third of senior management positions across government departments in the UK are held by women. One exception to this pattern is the military arm of the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) where the figure drops to below two per cent. To gain greater insight into what might account for this high variation relative to other departments, an exploratory case study was conducted in the UK’s MoD. The study investigated the structural and individual impediments faced by women seeking access to the highest organisational leadership echelons. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 52 high-ranked female officers drawn from all three military services. Because changes occurring within the UK government departments are informed primarily by neoliberalism and this ideology strongly values entrepreneurship, the specific leadership lens used for analysis drew heavily on entrepreneurial theories. The findings revealed a complex, dynamic interrelationship involving context, structure, agency and networks. The recursive relationship among these four components at the level of the individual represented a rich mixture of cognitive interpretation, risk taking, opportunity recognition and the use of scarce resources. Evidence was found which demonstrated that female institutional leaders could increase their career progression chances by minimising institutional deviation, thereby allowing individuals to benefit from increased leadership legitimacy. However, the evidence also suggested that women still faced many impediments which were inhibiting their chances of reaching the very top leadership roles.


Women Leadership Institution Entrepreneurship 


  1. Acker, J. (1988). Class, gender, and the relations of distribution. Signs, 13(3), 473–497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Acker, J. (1990). Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organizations. Gender and Society, 4(2), 138–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Adler, P. S., & Kwon, S.-W. (2002). Social capital: Prospects for a new concept. Academy of Management Review, 27(1), 17–40.Google Scholar
  4. Ahl, H. (2006). Why research on women entrepreneurs needs new directions. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 30(5), 595–621.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ahl, H., & Marlow, S. (2012). Exploring the dynamics of gender, feminism and entrepreneurship: Advancing debate to escape a dead end? Organization, 19(5), 543–562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Aldrich, H., & Zimmer, C. (1986). Entrepreneurship through social networks. In D. L. Sexton & R. W. Smilor (Eds.), The art and science of entrepreneurship (pp. 3–23). Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.Google Scholar
  7. Alvarez, S. A., & Barney, J. B. (2007). Discovery and creation: Alternative theories of entrepreneurial action. Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, 1, 11–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Alvarez, S. A., & Barney, J. B. (2013). Epistemology, opportunities, and entrepreneurship: Comments on Venkataraman et al. (2012) and Shane (2012). Academy of Management Review, 38(1), 154–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Antonakis, J. B. J., & Autio, E. (2006). Entrepreneurship and leadership. In J. R. Baum, M. Frese, & R. A. Baron (Eds.), The psychology of entrepreneurship (SIOP organizational frontiers series, pp. 189–208). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  10. Bacchi, C., & Eveline, J. (2003). Mainstreaming and neoliberalism: A contested relationship. Policy and Society, 22(2), 98–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Barr, H. (1998). Competent to collaborate: Towards a competency-based model for inter professional education. Journal of Inter Professional Care, 12(2), 181–188.Google Scholar
  12. Bartlett, D., & Dibben, P. (2010). Public sector innovation and entrepreneurship; case studies from local government. Local Government Studies, 28(4), 107–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Batmanghlich, C. A. (2014). Why leaders fail ethically: A paradigmatic evaluation of leadership. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  14. BBC. (2013). RAF nurse Wendy Williams wins sexism tribunal. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-23053008
  15. Beckert, J. (1999). Agency, entrepreneurs, and institutional change. The role of strategic choice and institutionalized practices in organizations. Organization Studies, 20(5), 777–799.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Berg, N. G. (1997). Gender, place and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship and Regional Development, 9(3), 259–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Bevelander, D., & Page, M. (2011). Ms. Trust: Gender, networks and trust— implications for management and education. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 10(4), 623–642.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Brass, D. J. (1985). Men’s and women’s networks: A study of interaction patterns and influence in an organization. Academy of Management Journal, 2328, 327–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Brass, D. J., Galaskiewicz, J., Greve, H. R., & Tsai, W. (2004). Taking stock of networks and organizations: A multilevel perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 47(6), 795–817.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Burt, R. S. (1997). The contingent value of social capital. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42, 339–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Burt, R. S. (2000). The network structure of social capital. Research in Organi-zational Behaviours, 22, 345–423.Google Scholar
  22. Burt, R. S. (2005). Brokerage and closure: An introduction to social capital. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Burt, R. S., Hogarth, R. M., & Michaud, C. (2000). The social capital of French and American managers. Organization Science, 11(2), 123–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Bygrave, W. D., & Hofer, C. W. (1991). Theorizing about entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 16(2), 13–22.Google Scholar
  25. Callewaert, S. (2006). Bourdieu, critic of Foucault the case of empirical social science against double-game-philosophy. Theory, Culture & Society, 23(6), 73–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Cappelli, P., & Sherer, P. D. (1991). The missing role of context in OB: The need for meso level approach. Research in Organizational Behaviour, 13, 55–110.Google Scholar
  27. Carter, S., Anderson, S., & Shaw, E. (2001). Women’s business ownership: A review of the academic, popular and internet literature. Report to the Small Business Service. Strathclyde University.Google Scholar
  28. Caton, J. (2015). Entrepreneurship in the public sector: When middle managers create value. Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy, 4(2), 275–276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Chalmers, M. (2015). R. Taylor-Norton, Britain faces further cuts to armed forces. The Guardian. Retrieved March 10, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/news/defence-and-security-blog/2015/mar/09/britain-faces-further-cuts-to-armed-forces
  30. Chartered Management Institute. (2013). Women in Leadership Chartered Management Institute & Women in Management (White Paper). Accessed at: http://www.managers.org.uk/insights/research/current-research/2013/march/women-in-leadership-white-paper
  31. Cogliser, C. C., & Brigham, K. H. (2004). The intersection of leadership and entrepreneurship: Mutual lessons to be learned. The Leadership Quarterly, 15(6), 771–799.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Connell, R., Fawcett, B., & Meagher, G. (2009). Neoliberalism, new public management and the human service professions: Introduction to the special issue. Journal of Sociology, 45(4), 331–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Dacin, M. T., Goodstein, J., & Scott, W. R. (2002). Institutional theory and institutional change: Introduction to the special research forum. Academy of Management Journal, 45(1), 45–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Denhardt, R. B., & Denhardt, J. V. (2000). The new public service: Serving rather than steering. Public Administration Review, 60(6), 549–559.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Den-Hartog, D. N., House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Ruiz-Quintanilla, S. A., & Dorfman, P. W. (1999). Culture specific and cross-culturally generalizable implicit leadership theories: Are attributes of charismatic/transformational leadership universally endorsed? The Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), 219–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Diefenbach, F. E. (2011). Entrepreneurship in the public sector (pp. 31–64). Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. DiMaggio, P. (1988a). Interest and agency in institutional theory. In L. Zucker (Ed.), Institutional patterns and organizations (pp. 3–22). Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.Google Scholar
  38. DiMaggio, P. (1988b). The new institutionalisms: Avenues of collaboration. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 154(4), 696–705.Google Scholar
  39. Dorado, S. (2005). Institutional entrepreneurship, partaking, and convening. Organization Studies, 26(3), 385–414.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. EHRC. (2011). Women in ‘top jobs’ in the UK 2011–2012, equality human rights commission. London: The Stationery Office, Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.Google Scholar
  41. Elie-Dit-Cosaque, C., Pallud, J., & Kalika, M. (2011). The influence of individual, contextual, and social factors on perceived behavioral control of information technology: A field theory approach. Journal of Management Information Systems, 28(3), 201–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Emirbayer, M., & Goodwin, J. (1994). Network analysis, culture, and the problem of agency. The America Journal of Sociology, 99(6), 1411–1454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Eyal, O., & Kark, R. (2004). How do transformational leaders transform organizations? A study of the relationship between leadership and entrepreneurship. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 3(3), 211–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Fenwick, T. (2003). Women entrepreneurs: A critical review of the literature. Edmonton: Department of Educational Policy Studies, University of Alberta.Google Scholar
  45. Fligstein, N. (1997). Social skill and institutional theory. American Behavioral Scientist, 40(4), 397–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Gabbay, S. M., & Leenders, R. T. A. J. (1999). CSC: The structure of advantage and disadvantage. In R. T. A. J. Leenders & S. M. Gabbay (Eds.), Corporate social capital and liability (pp. 1–14). Boston: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  47. Gabbay, S. M., & Zuckerman, E. W. (1998). Social capital and opportunity in corporate R and D: The contingent effect of contact density on mobility expectations. Social Science Research, 27, 189–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Gartner, W. B. (1988). ‘Who is an entrepreneur?’ Is the wrong question. American Journal of Small Business, 12(4), 11–32.Google Scholar
  49. Giddens, A. (1981). A contemporary critique of historical materialism (Vol. 1): Power, property and the state. London: Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Giddens, A. (1993). New rules of sociological method: A positive critique of interpretative sociologies. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 91(3), 481–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Greenberg, D., McKone-Sweet, K., & Wilson, H. J. (2011). The new entrepreneurial leader: Developing leaders who shape social and economic opportunity. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.Google Scholar
  53. Gupta, V., Macmillan, I. C., & Surie, G. (2004). Entrepreneurial leadership: Developing and measuring a cross-cultural construct. Journal of Business Venturing, 19(2), 241–260.Google Scholar
  54. Hall, P. A., & Taylor, R. C. (1996). Political science and the three institutionalisms. Political Studies, XLIV, 936–957.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Harrison, R. T., & Leitch, C. M. (1994). Entrepreneurship and leadership: The implications for education and development. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, 6(2), 111–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Hartwig, M. (2007). Dictionary of critical realism. Oxford: Routledge.Google Scholar
  57. Harvey, D. (2003). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Hébert, R. F., & Link, A. N. (1989). In search of the meaning of entrepreneurship. Small Business Economics, 1, 39–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Holm, P. (1995). The dynamics of institutionalization: Transformation processes in Norwegian fisheries. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(3), 398–422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Hunt, J. G., & Dodge, G. E. (2000). Leadership deja vu all over again. The Leadership Quarterly, 11(4), 435–458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Janda, K. F. (1960). Towards the explication of the concept of leadership in terms of the concept of power. Human Relations, 13, 345–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Johns, G. (2001). In praise of context. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 22, 31–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Johns, G. (2006). The essential impact of context on organizational behaviour. Academy of Management Review, 31(2), 386–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Joseph, D. L., Dhanani, L. Y., Shen, W., McHugh, B. C., & McCord, M. A. (2015). Is a happy leader a good leader? A meta-analytic investigation of leader trait affect and leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 26(4), 557–576.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Judge, T. A., & Piccolo, R. F. (2004). Transformational and transactional leadership: A meta-analytic test of their relative validity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(5), 755.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Katzenstein, M. (1998). Faithful and fearless: Moving feminist protest inside the church and military. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  67. Kenny, M. (2007). Gender, institutions and power: A critical review. Politics, 27(2), 91–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Kilduff, M., Tsai, W., & Hanke, R. (2006). A paradigm too far? A dynamic stability reconsideration of the social network research program. Academy of Management Review, 31(4), 1021–1048.Google Scholar
  69. Klein, P. G., Mahoney, J. T., McGahan, A. M., & Pitelis, C. N. (2010). Toward a theory of public entrepreneurship. European Management Review, 7, 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Lawrence, T. B., & Suddaby, R. (2006). 1.6 Institutions and institutional work. In S. R. Clegg, C. Hardy, T. B. Lawrence, & W. R. Nord (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organization studies (2nd ed., pp. 215–254). London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Levy, D., & Scully, M. (2007). The institutional entrepreneur as modern prince: The strategic face of power in contested fields. Organization Studies, 28(7), 971–991.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Lin, N. (2001). Social capital. A theory of social structure and action. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Lorenz, C. (2012). If you’re so smart, why are you under surveillance? Universities, neoliberalism, and new public management. Critical Inquiry, 38(3), 599–629.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Maguire, S., Hardy, C., & Lawrence, T. B. (2004). Institutional entrepreneurship in emerging fields: HIV/AIDS treatment advocacy in Canada. Academy of Management Journal, 47(5), 657–679.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Marttila, T. (2013). The culture of enterprise in neoliberalism: Spectres of entrepreneurship (Vol. 87). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  76. McNae, R., & Vali, K. (2015). Diverse experiences of women leading in higher education: Locating networks and agency for leadership within a university context in Papua New Guinea. Gender and Education, 27(3), 288–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  78. Miller, F. G., & Kaptchuk, T. J. (2008). The power of context: Reconceptualizing the placebo effect. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 101(5), 222–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Ministry of Defence. (2016). UK Armed Forces: Biannual diversity statistics. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/530586/Biannual_Diversity_Statistics_1Apr16_revised.pdf
  80. Miroff, B. (2003). Entrepreneurship and leadership. Studies in American Political Development, 17(02), 204–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Morris, M., & Jones, F. (1999). Entrepreneurship in established organizations: The case of the public sector. Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice, 24(1), 73–93.Google Scholar
  82. Narayan, D., & Cassidy, M. F. (2001). A dimensional approach to measuring social capital: Development and validation of a social capital inventory. Current Sociology, 49(2), 59–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. North, D. C. (1990). Institutions, institutional change and economic performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Osborne, D., & Gaebler, T. (1992). Reinventing government; How the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public Sector. Reading: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  85. Podolny, J. M., & Baron, J. N. (1997). Resources and relationships: Social networks and mobility in the workplace. American Sociological Review, 62, 673–693.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Powell, W. W., & DiMaggio, P. J. (2012). The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  87. Ridgeway, C. L., & Correll, S. J. (2004). Unpacking the gender system: A theoretical perspective on gender beliefs and social relations. Gender and Society, 18, 510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Ridgeway, C. L., & Smith-Lovin, L. (1999). The gender system and interaction. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 191–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Schyns, B., & Schilling, J. (2013). How bad are the effects of bad leaders? A meta-analysis of destructive leadership and its outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 24(1), 138–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Schyns, B., Felfe, J., & Blank, H. (2007). The relationship between romance of leadership and the perception of transformational/charismatic leadership: A meta-analysis. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 56, 505–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Seo, M., & Creed, D. (2002). Institutional contradictions and institutional change: A dialectic perspective. Academy of Management Review, 27, 222–248.Google Scholar
  92. Sewell, H., Jr. (1992). A theory of structure: Duality, agency, and transformation. American Journal of Sociology, 98, l–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Sexton, D. L., & Bowman-Upton, N. (1990). Female and male entrepreneurs: Psychological characteristics and their role in gender-related discrimination. Journal of Business Venturing, 5(1), 29–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Shepsle, K. A. (2005). Old questions and new answers about institutions: The riker objection revisited. Retrieved from http://scholar.harvard.edu/kshepsle/publications.
  95. Sorenson, O., & Stuart, T. E. (2008). Bringing the context back in: Settings and the search for syndicate partners in venture capital investment networks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 53(2), 266–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Steger, M. B., & Roy, R. K. (2011). Neoliberalism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  97. Sundin, E. (2011). Entrepreneurship and the reorganization of the public sector: A gendered story. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 32, 631.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Sundin, E., & Tillmar, M. (2008). A nurse and a civil servant changing institutions: Entrepreneurial processes in different public sector. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 24(2), 113–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Thornton, P., & Ocasio, W. (2008). Institutional logics. In R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, R. Suddaby, & K. Sahlin (Eds.), The Sage handbook of organizational institutionalism (pp. 99–129). London: Sage. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781849200387.n4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Thornton, P. H., Ocasio, W., & Lounsbury, M. (2012). The institutional logics perspective: A new approach to culture, structure, and process. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Timberlake, S. (2005). Social capital and gender in the workplace. Journal of Management Development, 24, 34–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Troy, G. (2009). The Reagan Revolution: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. van Gellecum, Y., Baxter, J., & Western, M. (2008). Neoliberalism, gender inequality and the Australian labour market. Journal of Sociology, 44(1), 45–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  104. Vecchio, R. P. (2003). Entrepreneurship and leadership: Common trends and common threads. Human Resource Management Review, 13(2), 303–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. Wang, D., Waldman, D. A., & Zhang, Z. (2014). A meta-analysis of shared leadership and team effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(2), 181–198.Google Scholar
  106. Weber, K., & Glynn, M. A. (2006). Making sense with institutions: Context, thought and action in Karl Weick’s theory. Organization Studies, 27(11), 1639–1660.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  107. Welter, F. (2011). Contextualizing entrepreneurship – conceptual challenges and ways forward. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 35(1), 165–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  108. Whitworth, A. (2016). Neoliberal paternalism and paradoxical subjects: Confusion and contradiction in UK activation policy. Critical Social Policy, 36(3), 412–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  109. Wijen, F., & Ansari, S. (2007). Overcoming inaction through collective institutional entrepreneurship: Insights from regime theory. Organization Studies, 28(7), 1079–1100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  110. Wilson, K. (2011). ‘Race’, Gender and Neoliberalism: Changing visual representations in development. Third World Quarterly, 32(2), 315–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  111. Windrum, P., & Koch, P. M. (Eds.). (2008). Innovation in public sector services: Entrepreneurship, creativity and management. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.Google Scholar
  112. Woolcock, M. l., & Narayan, D. (2000). Social capital: Implications for development theory, research and policy. World Bank Research Observer, 15(2), 225–249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  113. Yukl, G. (1999). An evaluation of conceptual weaknesses in transformational and charismatic leadership theories. The Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), 285–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Derek McAvoy
    • 1
  • Kevin Burgess
    • 2
  1. 1.Cranfield UniversitySteventon, AbingtonUK
  2. 2.Cranfield UniversityGracevilleAustralia

Personalised recommendations