What are the barriers to getting more senior women into leadership and how can organizations make changes to ensure diversity at an executive level? We take a look.

Global companies are making some progress getting more women into senior leadership, but it's slow. The countries leading the way across the globe are France, Iceland and Norway, with more than 40% female representation on company boards.

Meanwhile, the US lags with only 10% of top executive positions and 5% at CEO level held by women.1 Numbers have been increasing in the UK with the total number of women on FTSE 350 boards rising from 682 to 1026 in five years – an uptick of 50%. There are also no longer any all-male boards in the FTSE 350. However, around half of FTSE 100 companies don't yet meet the Hampton-Alexander Review target of 33% representation of women on the board by 2020.

At the other end of the scale, Japan, Indonesia and Korea currently have the lowest percentage of female leadership roles.

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Why is it important to have women in leadership roles?

Why is it important to have women in leadership roles?

There are many reasons why women's leadership is essential, not least the bottom line. According to Baroness Berridge (Minister for Women in the UK), companies in the top 25% for gender diversity on their executive teams are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability.

A more diverse workforce, including more women in leadership roles, is linked to more innovation and financial performance. Studies show that having females in leadership roles can help organizations forge a deeper connection with their customers, inspire other women employees, and boost employee engagement. Increasing diversity is also a significant benefit during skills shortages as organizations have access to a broader talent pool.

What are the challenges of women in leadership?

What are the challenges of women in leadership?

So what accounts for the lack of women in leadership? There are several possible reasons, including:

  • Stereotyping

    The idea that men make better leaders persists, particularly in sports, healthcare, and tech sectors. Even in industries where most of the workforce is female, the representation isn't equal. In the US, only 19% of hospital CEOs are women. This is partly because of ongoing stereotypes around what a healthcare boss 'looks like.'

    There are also stereotypes about job roles and career progression. We know that CFOs are less likely to be promoted to CEO than COOs,2 which is significant as 25% of senior female leaders are in a finance role. You can find the same pattern with women in senior legal positions.

  • Discrimination

    Some show that even when there is a pool of eligible women for promotion, senior men are not promoting them.3

    Institutional discrimination also has a part to play. An example of how organizations can discriminate against women is the gender pay gap. The gap had been steadily declining, but progress slowed following the pandemic. There’s also evidence of women being discriminated against more than men when they become parents.

  • Lack of access to mentors

    We know the pandemic impacted women and minorities more than men, and one way to redress this is greater access to mentoring. A mentoring relationship can benefit both parties and lead to more promotions and pay rises for both. However, women struggle more than men to find suitable mentors, which is exacerbated further for women of color.

  • Lack of flexibility

    In the UK, almost one in four older women care for a relative while working, compared to one in eight men. Organizations that lack flexibility for caregivers can lead to women leaving the workforce. With more flexible working options as standard, we could see more women in leadership.

  • Lack of connections

    Women in leadership tend to have fewer industry connections than men. This means they’re less likely to learn about upcoming opportunities or have access to great mentors.

  • Cultural resistance to female leaders

    In some parts of the world, there's still cultural resistance to women in leadership roles, including places like Japan. On the positive side, the Hampton-Alexander Review found that in the UK, "culture change at the top is paving the way for greater gender parity across businesses with women's representation in wider senior leadership also rising."

  • Lack of women in senior positions to promote women

    Many people hire and promote their own image due to unconscious bias. With fewer women in senior roles, there's no critical mass of women leaders to promote other women. On the flip side, studies have shown that women in the workplace experience less support from their gender than men.

Workplace Culture
Do men and women have different leadership styles?

Do men and women have different leadership styles?

Yes and no. There are some studies that support this point, but context is important. In general, women tend to have more of a 'transformational' style of leadership which is good for engagement, performance and productivity.

Although women tend to be more collaborative and democratic, men can have all these skills, too. And while people often view men as having a more 'command and control' leadership style, this isn't exclusively a male attribute.

The crucial difference is that peers tend to be more forgiving of a more autocratic leadership style in men than they are with women.

Experts argue that being a successful, inspiring leader is about a core set of leadership skills and abilities, regardless of gender. But it's clear that blending leadership styles according to context while remaining authentic is essential. To be successful, a leader must understand their leadership style and qualities.

Overcoming barriers to women in leadership

Overcoming barriers to women in leadership

So what are we going to do about it? While structural barriers and stereotypes remain, women will only get so far no matter how far they ‘lean in’. Organizations need to find ways to make it easier for women to break the glass ceiling and remain at the top level long-term. Here are five of them.

  1. Set clear gender diversity targets

    Large corporations across the world are working towards gender diversity targets. In the UK, Mercer has set a goal of 35% senior leaders being female by 2022.4 GSK has committed to 45% female representation in VP level and above by 2025 in both the UK and the US.5

    As well as collecting data on how many women are hired, organizations must make sure women – and indeed all minority colleagues – feel they belong and they can progress. As Brené Brown says, “Daring leaders work to make sure people can be themselves and feel a sense of belonging.”6

  2. Ensure roles are flexible

    A fully flexible approach includes working fewer or different hours, working compressed hours (more hours over fewer days), working from home, and job shares. Senior leaders should find ways to embrace this, so the organization accepts it as standard.

    Progress continues. Following a recent consultation in the UK, for example, employees will now have the right to request flexible working from day one of employment.

  3. Have gender-neutral selection procedures

    Harvard Business Review's Avivah Wittenberg-Cox states that, "corporate America has a preference for masculine leadership style that is deeply ingrained, largely unconscious and reliably self-reinforcing".7 Indeed, research shows that when hiring, both men and women tend to select a man over a woman when both are equally qualified. To combat this, HR leaders need to redesign processes to be gender-neutral.

    According to the World Economic Forum, the power of tech to solve some of these challenges is huge, but the tech industry also needs to step up. It says that, "The greatest challenge preventing the economic gender gap from closing is women's under-representation in emerging roles" – such as within the tech sector.

  4. Educate on unconscious bias

    Unconscious bias training aims to make any existing bias conscious so people can overcome it. As Wittenberg-Cox says, "Ignoring our biases simply lets the dominant group continue to dominate. The only way out is embracing our unconscious judgements." With unconscious bias training and other initiatives like gender diversity targets, leadership hiring should become more diverse.

    Leaders who learn to avoid hiring and promoting in their own image also tend to have more transformational organizations.

    However, some educational companies say that organizations need to look beyond unconscious bias training to make real change happen.

  5. Provide mentoring and coaching for women with leadership potential

    Companies need to prioritize mentoring and coaching for women with leadership potential, and particularly women of color. When it comes to increasing leadership diversity, mentoring programs can be more effective than other initiatives.

    Internal mentors work well at the junior and middle management levels. But at a senior leadership level, women executives and CEOs may also benefit from an external mentor or executive coach.

Keep reading


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1 "Having women in leadership roles is more important than ever, here's why", World Economic Forum, 2020
2 "Women scarce at top of U.S. business – and in the jobs that lead there", Pew Research, 2018
3 "Challenges Women Face in Leadership Positions and Organizational Effectiveness: An Investigation", Journal of Leadership Education, 2009.
4 "Gender Diversity Targets", Mercer, undated.
5 "GSK announces gender and diversity aspirational targets to increase representation at senior levels", GSK, 2021
6 "20 of the best leadership quotes from Brené Brown", CEO Magazine, 2019
7 "In Search of a Less Sexist Hiring Process", HBR, 2014
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