Barriers to women in leadership and how to move the needle this Women’s History Month and beyond.

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Barriers to women in leadership and how to move the needle this Women’s History Month and beyond.

Barriers to women in leadership and how to move the needle this Women’s History Month and beyond.

Despite progress toward gender equality within the workplace, women still face pushback. Many barriers to women in leadership remain, including the following obstacles:

Stereotypes. Most industries have been dominated by male leadership for so long that the traits of a good leader are often seen as masculine. Women are often perceived negatively when they exhibit these traits. For women of color, the bias is magnified. To add insult to injury, women may be seen as unfit for the role when they do not demonstrate these typical leadership qualities. Additionally, some people may think of specific roles and industries as traditionally female and others as traditionally male.

Discrimination. Work environments dominated by biases favoring men can be hostile toward women. Women may be passed over for promotions and experience sexual harassment, workplace harassment and other unprofessional behavior.

Lack of networking opportunities. While bias is becoming less prevalent in the working world, its impact can still pose challenges for women looking to network. As a result, there may be fewer opportunities for mentorship or arrangements to help women move into leadership positions.

No work-life balance. Old ideas about the domestic roles of men and women can limit the support women may need to balance work and everything else properly. As a result, some people may unfairly believe women can’t put in the time and effort required to lead. But every day, women continue to defy that myth – and plenty of others.

While every individual is different, attributes typically assigned to women can be significant differentiators of leadership qualities in the workplace. Women can help others set goals and attain them, emphasize teamwork and a supportive culture that sees being female as a strength. Female leaders are more likely to invest time and resources into diversity and belonging efforts at work, and notably are skilled at constructing a workplace that is supportive to mothers.

Research suggests that in contrast to men, who tend to be career-centric and want to maximize their financial return from work, women view work more holistically, as a component of their overall life plan. As such, they’re more likely to approach their careers in a self-reflective way and value factors such as meaning, purpose, connection and work-life integration.

Positive workplace culture shifts can occur when women bring these intrinsic strengths to their teams. Most important, the next generation of leaders of all genders can forge ahead with this generation of female leaders working for equity for all, women in particular.  

What can be done to move the needle?

Women are socialized to be perfect. Train girls up to be brave. While girls are taught to play it safe, smile pretty and do well in school, boys are taught to play rough and swing high. In other words, we’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave. Even when women are ambitious, society’s socialization of perfection often leads women to risk aversion. Teaching girls from a young age to take some risks and to use their voice will help drive gender equity forward.

Recognize the fear, and do the hard thing anyway. Success can almost always be found outside our comfort zone but is often hindered by the fear of the unknown and this is especially true for women who tend to think of others as much as they think of themselves. Successful leaders do what they were afraid to do instead of just letting the fear rule their decisions. Girls and women must learn to manage fear by acknowledging that the fear is there but doing the thing that scares you anyway. If you’re too rigid, you could miss one of those serendipitous “aha” moments that could inspire a creative solution, force a different approach, or start a movement that matters.

Don’t miss out on opportunities that come your way. Dr. Evisha Ford, founding executive director of the iCan Dream Center, had to face her fears when she figured out that to make the biggest impact on marginalized learners, she had to start her own organization. “Among my initial challenges was not knowing if I would be able to pay myself a salary after I paid my team.” Leaving her comfort zone paved the way for Dr. Evisha to take advantage of opportunities to change lives that never would have arisen otherwise. “Don’t miss out on opportunities that come your way to push past the fear, especially when you know you are in a position to make a systemic change.” Courageous leaders seize the chance to be an agent of change.