Women in Leadership – the unseen barriers

Women In Leadership – the unseen barriers

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(A summary adapted from HBR 2013)

More and more companies recognise that building a strong, diverse talent pipeline is a commercially smart way to work.   It not only ensures that you have business critical roles are covered and you are tapping into latent potential but it also increase profitability, reduces recruitment fees and you get a reputation as being a great place to work.

High performing organisations recognise the need to promote gender equality and support the advancement of women in leadership roles.

However, companies who make gender diversity a priority, spend time, money, and good intentions on efforts to build a more robust pipeline of upwardly mobile women, and then not much happens.


The problem with this approach is that they don’t address the often fragile process of coming to see oneself, and to be seen by others, as a leader.   Becoming a leader involves much more than being put in a leadership role, acquiring new skills, and adapting one’s style to the requirements of that role.    It involves a fundamental identity shift.

Organisations inadvertently undermine this process when they advise women to proactively seek leadership roles without also addressing policies and practices that communicate a mismatch between how women are seen and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leadership.

A significant body of research (see sources) shows that for women, the subtle gender bias that persists in organisations and in society, disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.  This research also points to some steps that companies can take in order to rectify the situation.   It’s not enough to identify and instil the “right” skills and competencies as if in a social vacuum.  The context must support a woman’s motivation to lead and also increase the likelihood that others will recognise and encourage her efforts—even when she doesn’t look or behave like the current generation of senior executives.

Effective leaders develop a sense of purpose by pursuing goals that align with their personal values and advance the collective good. This allows them to look beyond the status quo to what is possible and gives them a compelling reason to take action despite personal fears and insecurities.  Such leaders are seen as authentic and trustworthy because they are willing to take risks in the service of shared goals.  By connecting others to a larger purpose, they inspire commitment, boost resolve, and help colleagues find deeper meaning in their work.

Integrating leadership into one’s core identity is particularly challenging for women, because they feel that they must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority.   Practices that equate leadership with behaviours considered more common in men suggest that women are simply not cut out to be leaders.   Furthermore, the human tendency to gravitate to people like oneself leads powerful men to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise.   Sometimes it takes powerful women to recognise that potential, but powerful women are scarce.

How can we break this cycle?

On an individual basis it comes down to building confidence, presence and the ability to take calculated risks by:

  1. Providing future female leaders with a senior female mentor. If you haven’t got any suitable mentors internally, then look outside of your organisation for a mentor.  This will also provide your mentee with a sense of value and worth as well as a different perspective.
  2. Creating opportunities for female leaders/future leaders to show their skills and ability. This can be through a project they own or one they have to work cross functionally.   This will increase their professional profile, increase confidence and give them a sense of presence.
  3. Ensuring they are given support and coaching and that regular feedback is given. This will allow them to take calculated risks and push themselves further, knowing they have permission to do so.
  4. Encouraging them to mentor junior employees or connect with a 6th form college so they can mentor students. This will reinforce their self-worth and give them a sense of purpose.   It doesn’t have to be gender biased either, mentoring others, boys or girls provides both with a positive role model.  
  5. Enrol your future or existing female leaders in our Women In Leadership programme, accredited by the Chartered Management Institute and tailor made to build confidence, presence and business acumen.

To find out more about our Women in Leadership programme or culture change projects then contact  steph@smart-working.org or claire@wavelearning.co.uk



BITC Women in Work commission

“Who Will Lead and Who Will Follow? A Social Process of Leadership Identity Construction in Organizations,” by D. Scott DeRue and Susan J. Ashford (Academy of Management Review, October 2010