It seems we have been tracking the progress of women leaders for decades. Much has been written, researched and thoughtfully discussed, and many organizations have put in place valuable programs that have helped women move up the ladder.
However—where are we now, 20-plus years into the 21st century? What are the barriers for women today? And how can individuals and organizations continue to move the needle?
Organizations today have varying degrees of introspection into the topic of women in leadership. While one organization may have a generalist perspective, another might have a more nuanced perspective, looking further into how added layers of a woman’s identity further impact leadership progression. Consider, for example, how a woman’s experience with leadership opportunities varies compared to the experiences of men, based on whether they have a disability, are a veteran, a person of color, LGBTQ+ and across age groups.
I recently explored these questions with three exceptional women leaders. The discussion was rich, often surprising and constructive—exploring the important realization that women are not just “one thing.”
The path to leadership
It seems simple: If you want to move up into a leadership position, you must do “X, Y and Z.” There are seminars, books, mentorship programs and coaches for women leaders. However, the path isn’t always that clear-cut, and it’s instructive to examine how real women have navigated their careers.
“I never thought, ‘I want to be a leader when I grow up,'” says Patty Lee, president and founder of PAL Coaching and Consulting. “For me, it happened organically. People always looked to me to be the leader of the team. Then, I started to tap into my own ability, and I recognized that I have a gift. It was hard to accept because I didn’t want to be in the limelight. I didn’t want the responsibility or risk, but it just kept coming.”
For Sree Ratnasinghe, Amazon Web Services’ director of Customer Solutions Management (North America), the process was more deliberate—but equally revealing.
“I had great role models in my mother and grandmother,” Ratnasinghe shares. “I wanted to paint this vision for others and show them that these leadership roles are possible.”
Sree’s strengths as a mother and caregiver are woven into her leadership. “When the opportunity came along, it felt natural to help my employees grow and thrive in their careers and be able to pay it forward to others just like my mentors and sponsors had done for me.”
“I wanted to be a senior leader in corporate America from the beginning,” adds Archana Gilravi, senior vice president of Strategy, Programs and Partnerships for the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation at LeanIn.org. Gilravi’s career began in consulting before she moved into technology. However, her worldview was shaped earlier while attending an all-women’s college.
“Gender feminism has been inside of me for a long time,” she says. “Before I pivoted to Lean In, I wanted to be the most senior person so that I could hire gender-balanced teams and make sure that women got equal opportunities.”
Each of these women came to leadership in a different way and for different reasons. And each encountered barriers. Some are external—originating in society, the organizational culture or from individuals. But some are internal—the roadblocks women set up in their own minds that can hold them back.
External barriers women leaders face
For many years, the key metrics to determine progress for women in leadership have focused on the percentage of women in the C-suite and on corporate boards or those who are “breaking the glass ceiling.” But research by LeanIn.org has found that the main barrier to women’s advancement is not a glass ceiling but a broken rung.
The ‘broken rung’
The broken rung refers to a problem with the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are promoted. The result is fewer women to hire or be promoted into senior manager roles.
“People say, ‘I can’t hire enough women because there’s a pipeline problem,’ but that comes from a lack of promotion early on,” explains Gilravi. “It’s essential to shine a light on early career, when men and women have only a few years of work experience and the playing field is more level.”
Burning the candle at both ends
Many working women still balance several “full-time” jobs. There’s the paycheck job, of course, but once they get home, many women go right into a non-paying job. Women have statistically borne the burden of the work related to childcare and the running of the household, notes Ratnasinghe, and this only increased during COVID.
“Societally, our policies and structures have not caught up to what women fully need, which has led to burnout,” she says. Carrying all these different responsibilities impacts career advancement. It draws attention and energy away from pursuing a leadership path.
The ‘ideal leader’ barrier
What are the qualities of a good leader? We could easily brainstorm a long list. But beneath any objective description is the unspoken, shaped by societal and organizational culture.
The natural outcome of having a higher percentage of men in leadership is that a particular leadership style becomes the norm. But does it fit everyone else in the organization?
People often associate communication styles with particular gender expressions. For example, a more competitive style of communication with a goal of sharing one’s ideas and viewpoints is often attributed to men—the focus being on status and communicating a message. Conversely, the behavior of sharing the speaking floor and encouraging others to speak is often attributed to women, with the focus on building rapport and relationships. Consider, too, how cultural differences can impact male-centric perceptions of leadership.
Internal barriers—and how to overcome them
Too often, women are our worst enemy. Internal messages—whether they originate from cultural norms or personal experience—can undo women leaders if not recognized and confronted head-on.
“Among women, and quite frankly, any marginalized group, there’s an internal barrier that often shows up in puberty,” shares Lee. “For me, it was how to bring my authentic self. I didn’t want to bring attention to myself, or be different or be excluded. These filters went through my brain as I processed information before I would say or do anything.”
The amount of energy this internal second-guessing takes blocks the person’s true value and contribution. In an organizational context, it can result in a loss of productivity, innovation and creativity.
“Women in the workplace often feel they have to become some idealized persona that’s very hardened or cutthroat,” Ratnasinghe notes. But she brings empathy to work. “When we seek to understand people as people first, understand what motivates them, what makes them tick, we can better inspire them overall. There’s a direct line from caregiving to empathetic leadership in the workplace.”
Part of being authentic is knowing when the situation isn’t right and having the courage to fix it.
“There are times in our careers when we have to say. ‘This isn’t working,'” shares Lee.
Women often have a hard time saying no. The key is to say no to work that doesn’t increase your skills and experience. That makes more time to say yes to work that does complement your career goals. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and let your dreams be known, says Gilravi.
“If people know what your goals are, they can really help you get there.”