Although there has been a lot of talk about female advancement in the workplace, women in the United States still struggle to secure leadership positions. Research by the Center for American Progress found that while women hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, just 6 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs.  The seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling exists in nearly all business verticals, including the legal, medical, and academic arenas.

Accenture, a management consulting and professional services organization, recently released a report identifying 40 factors that can block female advancement in the workplace. It suggests that firms can narrow the gender pay gap and increase advancement opportunities for women by adopting certain practices—some of which are obvious while others are less so. Accenture’s recommendations include:

  • Making gender diversity a management priority
  • Being transparent about gender pay-gap and diversity goals
  • Supporting a network where females can create allies and problem-solve
  • Encouraging men to take parental leave, thus eliminating the mommy career track
  • Making it comfortable for employees to report sexual discrimination and harassment
  • Increasing flexible and remote work opportunities for women

Susan MacKenty Brady, executive vice president of global program strategy and development at Linkage Inc., is an authority on the topic of female advancement. She maintains that the most significant barriers that prevent women in the workplace from assuming senior positions are: 

  1. Insufficient engagement at the executive level in ensuring a level playing field and providing the organizational capability in sponsorship needed to progress women into positions of leadership;
  2. Cultures where exclusion and bias (implicit and explicit) exist, thus creating difficult unseen barriers for female talent;
  3. Talent systems and processes (ranging from hiring protocols to succession and talent review processes and work/life policies) that have (unintended) inherent barriers for the progression of female talent; and
  4. A lack of focused leadership development for women, where women are offered the exposure, experience, and education needed to advance.

To address inequity in the workplace, Brady urges organizations to prioritize executive action and sponsorship; harbor inclusive cultures and environment; remove barriers in talent systems and processes; and create educational and experiential opportunities for women to advance.

7 Hurdles Blocking Female Advancement

Additionally, Brady notes that women often cling to internal mindsets that can hold them back. In a blog post and video Brady defines seven such obstacles, and illuminates how to overcome them.

  1. Confidence. According to Brady, women tend to question themselves and doubt their worthiness. In order to advance, they must coach their inner critics.
  2. Branding and presence. Working women are often uncomfortable talking about themselves and what they bring to the table. They must learn to articulate their strengths and take charge of their own personal brands.
  3. Ambivalence. If they want to get ahead, Brady believes women must define and take ownership of what they want professionally. Too often they don’t know, or rely upon others to define it for them.
  4. Networking. Busy women view networking as optional, however Brady emphasizes that they should be strategic about it. “Building relationships with those in positions of leadership is critical,” she says. “Put down the to-do list long enough to connect with decision makers across the organization, and help them understand who you are and what you bring to the table.”
  5. Making the “ask.” Women are generally uneasy about asking for what they want. In this regard, Brady says they can learn a lot from men. Women must stop thinking about what they need as a self-serving request. They must develop the courage and fortitude to stand up and ask for what they want.
  6. Proving value. Women tend to overcompensate in order to demonstrate that they are adding value. Brady believes the practice is exhausting and can result in career burnout. She recommends changing the paradigm. Instead of doing it all alone, she advises women on the leadership track to encourage others to take on more responsibility, thus enabling them to scale and multiply their own impact.
  7. Bias. In order to affect real change, women must honestly examine their personal beliefs and assumptions. They must understand their self-limiting behaviors, and make intentional choices to think and act differently.

Banning bias

Bias, which is often unconscious, can play a significant role in stalling female advancement. The Kirwan Institute’s 2016 report sheds light on the phenomenon of implicit bias, which it describes as “a natural tendency on the part of even well-intended and thoughtful leaders to be influenced by attitudes or stereotypes that affect their understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.”

Unconscious bias in the workplace influences the hiring and promotion process, often putting women at a disadvantage. Organizations can reduce unconscious bias by helping individuals confront the assumptions and judgments they hold about others. Companies that are dedicated to a more equitable workplace can facilitate meaningful conversations to increase awareness, foster understanding, and provide guidance. Management can establish expectations around inclusive leadership behavior. And L&D professionals can create training modules that confront stereotypes and directly address the topic of bias.

Preparing women for leadership positions

McKinsey & Company conducted a comprehensive study on female advancement in 2017. It found that although women and men stay at their respective companies and ask for promotions at similar rates, women tend to fall behind at the initial stage of promotion into management.

“At the first critical step up to manager, women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male peers,” the organization notes. “This gender disparity has a dramatic effect on the representation of women: if entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the SVP and C-suite levels would more than double.”

Firms that want to maintain a viable pipeline of female leaders must proactively address the issue by nurturing and encouraging talented women within the organization. Develop a mentoring program that offers women guidance and support at all stages of their career, not just when they are poised for a senior management position.

Gender representation in the corporate pipeline graph illustrates how women lag behind men in senior positions

Building a pipeline of female leaders

To learn more about female advancement, Jane Edison Stevenson and Evelyn Orr of Korn Ferry Institute interviewed 57 female CEOs. In a piece published in the Harvard Business Review, they offer tips to organizations interested in building a sustainable pipeline of female CEOs. This includes:

  • Identifying and developing future talent by providing promising women with access to operational and leadership opportunities in core business functions.
  • Enlisting mentors and role models who are ready and willing to help women navigate a path to the C-suite. Sponsors, who usually take a hands-on role in managing career moves and promoting executives as potential CEOs, are particularly important in this process.
  • Focusing on values, because women’s motivation tends to differ from that of their male counterparts. In general, women want their efforts to benefit others and improve the world. To build a pipeline of future female leaders, emphasize the meaningful impact they will have within the company, and beyond.
  • Putting women in the position to succeed. Women are sometimes given the opportunity to prove themselves by being offered a senior leadership position that carries a high risk of failure. Although the female leader might orchestrate a stunning turnaround, she could also suffer a high-profile setback.

In conclusion

Although women in the workplace have been struggling for years for equality, recent political and social turmoil has thrust the topic squarely into the spotlight. Susan MacKenty Brady believes this is good because it has “educated leaders to the inequity and very real biases women in the workplace face,” and has turned our collective attention toward a problem that male and female leaders alike must address.

Indeed, supporting female advancement in the workplace is more than simply a matter of ethics. It makes real business sense in today’s competitive labor market. Organizations that actively groom their top female talent for leadership positions will be better poised for success in the future.