The business case for having more women in leadership positions is clear.

A study of 745 men and women leaders and aspiring leaders that we conducted with Watermark found that female bosses were rated as more supportive of career development by their direct reports. While men rated male and female bosses about equally in terms of career support, women rated female bosses as much more supportive than male bosses.

That’s important, because research shows that employees perform better when their bosses are supportive.

The CCL-Watermark study also found that men and women with female bosses felt their organization was more committed to their career development and were less likely to feel burned out by their jobs, factors that translate to lower employee turnover.

But for all the benefits of having women leaders in a workplace, organizations have not made much improvement recently. For the last 10 years, the proportion of women in senior roles in organizations globally has been stuck at 24%. Around the world, women are less likely to be employed full time. Men are 10 times more likely to be a head of government than women. Those inequities stem at least in part from differences in education and cultural barriers that often begin in elementary school.

We have been exploring what factors prevent more women from attaining leadership roles, and how organizations can bolster female leadership and gender equity in the workplace.

Emerging Leadership Trends Report

Barriers to Leadership

When it comes to taking on leadership roles and seeking advancement, men and women have many of the same concerns, including pay, work-life balance, and pressures to relocate. But women also have some concerns that most men don’t.

For companies that want to grow their ranks of women leaders, these can be unique barriers to women advancing that must be addressed:

Not being offered equal opportunities. In our study, women told us that they often didn’t receive the same advancement and leadership opportunities as male peers. They felt they had to work harder to be afforded the same opportunities as men, and often had to overcome assumptions about their capabilities and actions due to their gender.

In some cases, women reported that experienced female executives were brought into organizations at a lower level than male counterparts, meaning they had to invest more time to get to the same level as male peers.

Lack of confidence. Women were more likely to report that they felt unsure of themselves. Sometimes that meant they wondered if they were qualified for a leadership position or had trouble seeing themselves as leaders. In other cases, they wondered if others really wanted them in a leadership role, and therefore if they would receive support.

Glass cliffs. Finally, women reported being offered leadership “opportunities” in no-win roles. Sometimes the leadership roles or challenges came without sufficient resources or were structured in a way that made failure more likely. This is reflected in a separate 2005 study that found that FTSE 100 Index companies were more likely to appoint women to their boards following an extended period of poor stock market performance.

These precarious, high-risk leadership roles create problems for women, as a high-profile failure in a leadership role can derail their careers. Because of this, social scientists refer to these opportunities as “glass cliffs” — since women who break through the glass ceiling might find themselves quickly falling back down.


Strengthening the Female Leadership Pipeline

Addressing these barriers to leadership requires a 2-fold approach. First, the cultural and organizational barriers must be addressed. Women should get the same kinds of leadership training and opportunities as men, giving them similar chances to succeed.

Additionally, aspiring women leaders can benefit from leadership training that addresses some of the specific challenges they face. One area where we have recently pursued this is in the technology industry.

The tech industry has a dismal track record of retaining women as they advance in their careers. A 2016 study from the National Center for Women & Information Technology found that after 19 years, fewer than half of women in professional STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs were still in the field. By comparison, more than 90% of women in non-STEM professional jobs stayed in their field over the same period.

To address this, we recently worked with more than 2-dozen mid-level female engineers and technologists to help them overcome some of the barriers they face in their careers. This pilot program provided some insights that are likely relevant to any leadership initiative designed to grow the pipeline of women leaders:

  • Credibility matters. Women want credible, research-backed approaches to leadership development. Women want to understand where an idea or approach comes from and why they should take it seriously.
  • It’s a process. Learning new tools and techniques and then applying them takes time. Women need an opportunity to not only gain new skills, but also to apply them on the job.
  • Challenging assignments are needed. To develop their leadership skills, women need specific challenging assignments where they can put what they’re learning into action in a way that produces valuable results for their organizations.
  • Relationships rule. Women leaders can be more successful when they have opportunities to establish relationships and build networks, especially with each other. Such networks give women a place to seek out informal advice and access career opportunities.
  • Mentoring is a powerful tool. Aspiring women leaders can benefit greatly from female mentors who are farther along the leadership path. Mentors can help women navigate the challenges they’ll face both as women and as leaders.

Strengthening the leadership pipeline for women is imperative for any organization that wants to benefit from more diverse perspectives and the more supportive management style women bring to the workplace. Yet most, if not all, organizations will need to make strategic, deliberate choices to grow their ranks of women leaders.

Listen now to When She Leads, our podcast about women in business that highlights how women’s leadership helps individuals grow and organizations flourish.

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