Overcome Barriers to Female Leadership (2023)

In the last 50 years, professional women have jumped huge hurdles in the corporate world, advancing into top leadership positions even with the odds stacked against them. Nevertheless, persistent barriers regularly delay and obstruct their success.


Sexism, veiled or overt, holds professional women back. Sexual harassment, inequitable work environments, and subtler forms of sexism place a huge burden on professional women working toward their goals. For example, when professional women constantly get interrupted or mistaken for administrative assistants at board meetings, it takes a mental toll that can stall their progress.

Deeply ingrained attitudes and biases against women keep professional women from getting their deserved respect and finding opportunities for advancement. The United States has yet to fully dismantle the social structures that favor men over women. As a result, professional women must confront incorrect assumptions and perceptions about their abilities and capacity for leadership.

While professionals tend to assume their male colleagues are competent, they less frequently afford their female colleagues the same good opinion. Professional women often deal with colleagues or supervisors who have low expectations of them or who discount them because of their gender.

Gender Bias and Stereotyping

Gender biases and stereotyping work against professional women’s leadership aspirations. Employers tend to interpret men’s assertive behavior in the workplace as strong, commanding, and direct, but when women display the same assertiveness, their employers often see them as aggressive, pushy, and shrill.

If a female professional’s behavior doesn’t align with gender stereotypes, then she often faces backlash. However, if her behavior jibes with traditional gender roles, such as being accommodating or looking out for the best interest of others before their own, she may risk coming across as less competitive than her male counterparts.

Less Assertive Tactics When Seeking Promotions

Perhaps women tend to use less assertive tactics when seeking promotions out of a concern they could encounter gender bias and stereotyping. Nonetheless, the failure to self-advocate a well-deserved raise or promotion slows professional women’s rise to higher levels of leadership.

Unfortunately, a lifetime of socialization that has taught women to seek perfection in themselves can also make professional women more averse to risk and therefore less pursuant of advancement. Unlike boys, whom adults typically teach to take risks and act bravely, society typically teaches girls to act cautiously.

In the article “3 of the Most Common Challenges Women Face in Negotiations,” researcher and expert in negotiations and management Mara Olekalns discusses her field study of women’s experiences in negotiations. She found that women often hesitate to push for career advancement, citing lack of confidence and fear of backlash.

Structural Barriers

Historical sexism and gender bias have resulted in structural barriers that serve as obstacles to women trying to climb the rungs of the corporate ladder.

Limited Access to Established Networks

Social activities, formal and informal, such as golf or happy hours, too often leave professional women out, not because women wouldn’t join but because men don’t invite them. In turn, professional women miss opportunities to build the rapport and relationships responsible for career advancement.

Professional women frequently experience limited access to established networks in which professional men often participate. This turns women into outsiders and hinders their ability to communicate, belong, and establish themselves as equals with their male colleagues and bosses.

Less Developed Female Leadership Networks

Men’s historical dominance in the workplace has resulted in less developed networks of female leaders. Such networks play a critical role in mentoring and sponsoring budding female talent. Some female leadership networks might offer formal presentations about strategies for following up in business, while others might feature casual get-togethers over wine during which professionals have a chance to build relationships and learn about one another’s businesses and how to help one another.

However, since women leaders are in a game of catch-up, rising professional women have fewer opportunities to get the same level of support from mentors and sponsors as their male counterparts do.

Family Responsibilities

Professional women often face significant challenges balancing work and family. Their family responsibilities can limit their ability to pursue leadership positions. That’s because despite the fact they have full-time jobs, they also frequently have the lion’s share of household responsibilities, such as caring for young, sick, or elderly family members.

According to the McKinsey report, since the onset of COVID-19, mothers in dual-career relationships (wherein both spouses work) are twice as likely as fathers in dual-career relationships to spend hours a day on chores.

Even though professional women with children at home tend to spend more time than fathers on household labor, they don’t necessarily have access to paid family leave or workplace flexibility. This imbalance affects professional women’s advancement and finances because it can require them to make personal sacrifices:

  • Taking unpaid leave
  • Downshifting their careers for needed flexibility
  • Resigning from their positions to care for family members
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Author: Prof. Nancy Dach

Last Updated: 09/11/2023

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