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Part I: Women & Leadership: The Challenges

Building up towards World’s Women’s Day next month (March 08), I am dedicating this post and the next to identifying challenges in, and remedial frameworks for, women’s progression to leadership roles in the workplace.

In this post, I’ll collate the challenges women face in their progression to leadership roles. And in Part II next month, I’ll discuss remedial measures and programs that have already been implemented to improve gender diversity in the workplace.

While researching an article in 2012, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman surveyed 7’280 leaders on 16 leadership characteristics, asking them to rate male and female leaders in each category. The survey indicated that women leaders outscored men in 12 of the 16 leadership competencies. Surprisingly, the two categories where women outscored men the most were Taking Initiative and Driving for Results. These are traditionally considered as male/ aggressive strengths; strengths that the ‘nurturing’ female leader is too soft to excel at.

Studies like these are not new; most organizations today realize that there is a conscious or unconscious gender bias at the workplace. Although more women than men are graduating university globally (180:100), only about 25% of corporate and academic leadership roles are held by women. What are some of the barriers women face in the workplace?

  1. Culture: In traditionally male dominated industries like construction, oil & gas, defense, etc, women are simply not considered as being as well suited for the job as their male counterparts.
  2. Unconscious Bias: Even in industries that are considered more enlightened, unconscious bias can creep in. In a landmark study in 2013, Pinterest engineer Stacy Chow surveyed the ratio of female computer engineers to male engineers in 267 workplaces. Her finding: 19:100.
  3. Lack of qualified incoming talent: This is a combination of four factors. First, conscious or unconscious bias ensures that a lower number of qualified women candidates are hired by the workplace. Second, women are provided with fewer development and advancement opportunities. Third, based on their own experience and that of others, women are almost four times more likely than men to think they have fewer opportunities for advancement because of their gender. Thus, they themselves do not often reach out for opportunities thinking they will fail. And fourth, very few women arrive at the gates of leadership after conquering this trio of bias, resistance, and lack of confidence. Only about 19% of executive boards comprise of women. Only 4% of C-level leaders are women.
  4. Lack of female role models: Due to the lack of female leaders at the workplace, younger women entering the workforce lack role models, path forgers, and mentors.
  5. Incorrect/ Inadequate representation: The lack of female leadership puts in motion a vicious cycle. Women continue to be represented in stereotypes (“emotional”, “soft”, “family-focused”, “harpy”, “sexy”) at workplaces that lack women to set the record straight.
  6. Gender diversity is de-prioritized: While many organizations are putting gender supportive frameworks in place, most workplaces still lack a focus on women’s challenges at the workplace.
  7. Women & men have different networks: While women and men have the same sized networks at the workplace, there’s still a problem: women have more women in their networks, and vice versa. Lacking the visibility with men in leadership roles reduces the chances of women being sponsored for future leadership roles.
  8. Loyalty: Women are less likely to leave a job that is not developing their leadership potential.
  9. Work-life Balance: Socially, women are still the primary care-givers, either dropping out of the workforce to care for their children/ taking reduced roles in order to balance their responsibilities at home.

Don’t forget to check in on the 2nd part of this post next month, in which I discuss remedial measures, and programs that have already been implemented to improve gender diversity in the workplace.


  • What’s Next: Future Global Trends Affecting Your Organization, SHRM Foundation, 2015
  • Women in S&P 500 Companies, Catalyst, 2016
  • Are Women Better Leaders than Men?, Harvard Business Review, 2012
  • Where are the Numbers? Tracy Chow, Medium, 2013
  • Women in Oil and Gas: Addressing the Gender Imbalance, Offshore Technology, 2013
  • How Blind Auditions Help Orchestras to Eliminate Gender Bias, The Guardian, 2013
  • The CS Gender 3000: Women in Senior Management, Credit Suisse, 2015
  • Women Matter 2012, McKinsey & Company, 2012

Categories: Organizational Development

Swati Sengupta

I am a Learning and Performance Consultant from India currently based in Zürich, Switzerland. Over the last 13 years, I have consulted for clients in the retail, technology, manufacturing, banking, shipping, BPO, and healthcare industries. For more details, please visit my Bio page by clicking on the Menu.

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