Women have achieved many social and economic wins over the last century, but progress has come at a painfully slow pace. For example, it took 50 years of arduous work and advocacy before women obtained the right to vote in 1919, and it wasn't until 1974 that they were granted the legal right to apply for credit without a man's signature.
As for career and workplace advancement, we've seen modest gains in recent years. According to the latest McKinsey Women in the Workplace report, "the number of women in senior vice president positions grew from 25% to 28% between January 2015 and January 2020, while female representation in the C-suite grew from 17% to 21% in that same time period."
But here, too, we still have a long path to tread, and progress remains sluggish.
Today — 100 years after gaining the right to vote — women account for the smallest percentage of top-level leadership positions in all sectors, including only 5% of CEOs in major U.S. corporations.
What's more, the World Economic Forum's "Global Gender Gap Report 2020" indicates that the gender gap will remain in effect for another 100 years, with progress in economic participation and opportunity regressing. The findings are worrying: Gender parity is down to a mere 57.8%, a percentage which the study says "in time represents a massive 257 years before gender parity can be achieved."
So what holds women back the most in the workplace? And what about the women who have breached the gender gap and become successful leaders in their fields? What challenges do they face, and what can they teach future generations of female leaders?
Here, we've compiled three of the biggest challenges women leaders face, along with strategies for overcoming them.
Gender stereotypes, such as the notion that men are "strong" while women are "nurturing," have been around for centuries. They've entrenched themselves in our culture and seeped into our psyches, shaping our perspectives about what it means to be male or female, and creating limiting expectations about our roles in the world. They exist in the form of conscious and unconscious biases and in both overt — such as sexual harassment — and implicit — such as microaggressions — behaviors.
Not surprisingly, these perceptions and the behaviors they foster create devastating obstacles for women in the workplace, and female leaders are not immune.
Jennifer Smith*, vice president of a media services firm, is no stranger to gender stereotypes. From statements trivializing her career, such as "You must be doing this for pocket change" and "Is this money for your shoes?," to assumptions about her role within her household, she has heard it all.
"I've had people say along the way, 'what's it like to be the one that's in charge of the extra income for your family,' instead of saying "I understand you're the breadwinner," which I was and I am."
How to overcome it
In the long run, it's up to all of us to change the perception of women's role in the workplace. Companies can help from the top down by taking steps like providing training on discrimination and support for women at all levels, standardizing pay, being flexible, and creating a culture of inclusion.
Individually, women in leadership positions can move beyond gender stereotypes by:
- Challenging the rules. Instead of accepting the status quo, carve your own path. For example, negotiate for better compensation packages; ask for promotions and raises if you think you deserve them; and push for more opportunities. You might be lighting the way for other women.
- Making the best of your attributes. Rather than trying to take on "masculine" traits, use your own strengths to change the face of leadership. Whether you excel at leading through collaboration, presenting to large groups, or having a supportive style that helps propel teams forward, harness your best attributes and be authentic. Authenticity is vital, according to Smith. "I've had a tremendous amount of success being authentic," she says.
- Speaking with authority. It's common for women to hold back because they fear being silenced, ignored, or treated as an outcast should they speak up in the workplace. Women in leadership roles, especially, need to make their voices heard because they are role models for other women. Show conviction and confidence when sharing your expertise, presenting ideas, and offering your thoughts in meetings. Project your voice, sit front and center, and advocate for yourself.
- Standing up for others. Overcoming stereotypes and gender bias in the workplace also means looking out for others. Say something if you witness degrading or offensive language and step in when you think someone is being bullied or harassed. By taking a stand for others, you are harnessing your leadership skills for the betterment of all.
2. Difficulty building alliances
Workplace alliances are some of the most valuable career assets we have. They provide feedback, advice, assistance and perspective. Some will go to bat for you, and they almost always lead to more valuable connections and new opportunities. Allies come in a variety of forms; they can be co-workers, associates, managers and subordinates. Some are mentors, others are sponsors, and most are supporters.
Even the most successful women need allies in the workplace to grow professionally. But with "the boys club" culture still predominant in many companies, women find it difficult to form alliances at work.
How to overcome it
The good news is that there are many opportunities for women leaders to build the networks they need. You can:
- Join a networking group like Chief, professional associations like Organization of Women Executives, or industry events such as Leadership Bootcamp for Women in Construction to build vital connections with fellow successful women.
- Find male advocates. Reach out to those men in your field who inspire you, are interested in your ideas, encourage your professional growth, and can introduce you to influential people or put you in front of the board. Ask for what you want and need, and be specific.
- Forge ties with people across your organization. Think about how other departments fit in with yours and create relationships with your colleagues in those departments. For example, if you are a marketing director, you might collaborate directly with sales, design, and engineering leaders on a strategic project that benefits the organization.
- Promote yourself. Page Haun, CMO of Cologix, says, "You have to be able to talk about yourself and your accomplishments in a confident, not arrogant, way so people know your impact." Sure, it takes some finesse and more than a bit of courage, but if you don't do it, then who will?
3. The likability penalty
The "likability penalty" is a term coined by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO and founder of the Lean In Foundation, to describe the price women pay for being nice in the workplace. That is, if you're warm, approachable and friendly, then you aren't taken seriously. But on the other hand, the more confident, direct and assertive a woman leader is, the less liked. So what's a gal to do?
Some women leaders find it easier to be disliked, shrugging off haters in favor of appearing competent. And maybe they're right. Studies from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business show that people tend to choose competence over likability when it comes to choosing colleagues and managers, in part to protect their livelihood.
But is that really the bottom line? Do women in charge have to accept being called "Nag," "Battle Axe," "Bitch" or "Dragon Lady" to get respect?
Jennifer Smith doesn't think so. She believes leaders must establish trusting relationships with their teams and that trust is earned.
"Subordinates have to know you've got their back, that you will work through problems and try to come up with solutions with them. I think when people act like dictators, then that just can backfire," says Smith.
How to overcome it
You don't have to choose between warmth and competence, and you don't have to walk a tightrope to find that middle ground.
Here are three strategies to striking a comfortable balance:
- Be authentic and act with integrity. Stay true to yourself and your convictions rather than reacting to others' expectations and ideals. Focusing on what others think stunts growth. Authenticity creates trust and allows leaders to define their leadership style, making them more effective in a complex and ever-changing world.
- Be flexible. Trust yourself and act in a way you feel is right in context. If a situation calls for you to be assertive and decisive, then be so; if you feel that warmth and compassion are necessary, allow yourself to open up.
- Make kindness and capability work together strategically. For example, in a meeting, start with your "people skills," such as interpersonal communication, compassion, and the ability to listen to establish rapport. Then pair those skills with your ability to think critically, solve problems, and synthesize information into decisive action.