By Melissa J. Anderson

In a recent New York Times article, Reuters Global Editor-at-Large Chrystia Freeland echoed recent comments made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about a consistent characteristic of extremists around the world – they try to control women.

Freeland points to a new study out of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management that suggests cultural styles may be to blame.

Based on an analysis of 32 countries, the study’s authors, Rotman professors Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli, propose two different types of cultures – “tight” and “loose.” Loose cultures (like Hungary, New Zealand, and Ukraine) don’t have extreme norms and tolerate change and deviation from tradition well. On the other hand, tight cultures (like Pakistan, South Korea, and Turkey) tend to have a strong reaction to anything that is different from what they consider traditional or normative – and in many cases this means female leadership.

Toh explained, “Cultural tightness can prevent the emergence of women leaders because tighter cultures may make a society’s people more resistant to changing the traditionally-held practice that placed men in leadership roles.”

But that’s only one piece of the puzzle, she explains. After all, as generally homogeneous and socially conformative, Norway is also considered a “tight” culture – and it is often at the forefront of gender equality action.

The difference is that Norway actively promotes gender equality as a cultural norm, where everyone from political and corporate leaders to individual citizens are expected to participate. It is a society keenly focused on egalitarianism.

Leonardelli continued, “But when it comes to the emergence of women leaders, cultural tightness can have an advantage too. Cultural tightness may also be a helpful instrument, because in societies where men and women are treated equally, tightness could more strongly implement and sustain practices that encourage the emergence of women leaders.”

The study suggests that workplace cultures can be influenced by the tight/loose dichotomy as well. How is culture change looked upon at your company? How about in your industry at large? Are women merely tolerated or are they celebrated as leaders?

Women Leaders

Today’s corporate environment is a far cry from the rigid cultural structure that existed only a few decades ago. Women are achieving managerial and leadership roles at increasing rates. But that doesn’t change the fact that few women ever reach the top echelons of the c-suite or boardroom. As many sources have pointed out, today there are only twelve female CEOs on the Fortune 500.

There are a few obvious individual reasons we can blame for this embarrassingly low number – pipeline issues, work/life factors, career path choices – but the big, main, glaring hurdle that women face is a corporate culture that is slow to make way for new faces, new leadership styles, new biological clocks. Corporate culture is hard to change and favors conformity, and until recently most people (men and women) would automatically assume a male face for leadership.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if most corporate cultures are “tight,” gender equality can become a norm, protected and promoted by leadership and the grassroots.

Change has to start at the top. And leaders have to be fully invested in carrying change through, from its nascent stages onward, until the fabric of the culture is imbued with a reverence for diversity – rather than just a nagging corporate policy that must be endured.

By nurturing a culture that proactively celebrates diverse leadership – rather than merely tolerating the few females who have managed to infiltrate the senior ranks – companies can better take advantage of the strategic benefits of gender diversity and empower women to achieve the career success they aspire to.