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University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies


Ms Monica WirzEgon Zehnder International Scholar

Gendering Executive Selection

Supervisor: Professor Jude Browne (UCCGS)

"The University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies has been designed with multidisciplinary research in mind. From the structure of the MPhil programme to the high calibre and diverse background of the visiting academics, the UCCGS provides a stimulating and nourishing environment for gender researchers to thrive. Students and researchers enjoy the wider culture and tradition of one of the most respectable universities in the world, whilst benefitting from the thorough critique of the status quo that gender theorists require. I found this combination presented the ideal conditions for me to develop my work. Through the insightful and supportive supervision of Dr Jude Browne, the different stages of my doctoral research have evolved at a steady pace and in an intellectually challenging manner, at a level that was conducive to learning rather than stressful. Similarly, Dr Browne’s practical approach was instrumental in helping me refine my topic of research and navigate the institutional environment at Cambridge, including the identification of funding and fieldwork sources which so often make PhD proposals unfeasible.  All in all, the UCCGS has established a world-class reputation which - in light of my own academic and personal experience - is very much well-deserved."


Despite substantial legal and cultural advances since the 1970's, women are still a significant minority in top corporate executive posts. The underlying reasons for the relentless dearth of women in high-status positions can be partly attributed to the inability of mainstream analytical frameworks and workplace practices to address ingrained background assumptions about 'femininity’ and 'leadership’. My doctoral thesis has addressed this paradox by critically assessing conventional epistemologies and methodologies relating to gender in corporate boards and in senior executive positions. Empirically and methodologically, the gender analysis of the policies and daily practices of executive search firms was accomplished through participant-observation and institutional ethnography. This close observation was crucial in bringing to the fore biases and patterns of inequality that often evade scrutiny. The starting premise of this research was that leadership positions in corporations are key sites of knowledge production with a global impact on wider societal issues. As such, these must be critically interrogated as part of any attempt to achieve gender equality and to theorise social change. The outcome of this research was a close analysis of the practices within executive recruitment/selection. In delivering a more subtle understanding of the processes undermining women's prospects as leaders, it has provided clear avenues for institutions to review their policies and for individual women to achieve their potential as change agents.