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What is Holding Female Leaders Back?

17 May 2016

What is holding female leaders back and how do we encourage them to step up?

In recent posts on Athena Insights we’ve been discussing women in leadership, their traits, image and strengths.

It’s time to consider the other side of the equation; what challenges and barriers are preventing women from achieving their leadership goals?

Back in the 1980s the term ‘glass ceiling’ was coined, describing an invisible barrier to career advancement faced by ambitious and driven career women.

Not so common a term, but one even more accurate, to describe the challenges facing women in leadership is ‘labyrinth’ as discussed in the book Through the Labyrinth: The truth about how women become leaders by Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli.

As discussed in one of my earlier posts entitled "Are You a Leader or a Female Leader?", the traditional attitudes and gender stereotypes around personality traits can be a limiting factor to leadership.  Assertive and direct men are seen as strong and effective leaders but in women these traits are not seen in such a positive light.  No one wants to be seen as hard to get on with, so whether we realise it or not, women may self sabotage or actively avoid projects that lead to career advancement.

“Real obstacles don't take you in circles.  They can be overcome.  Invented ones are like a maze." - Barbara Sher

The types of leadership and management roles traditionally chosen by, and for women, can also have a limiting effect on career progression.  Women are more likely to be responsible for more administrative management roles, such as HR and accounting as opposed to operational and strategic positions that involve what is considered a higher level of decision making and responsibility.  As a result women are either not given the opportunity to prove their competency in these areas or are reluctant to take the leap into roles that they feel are outside of their comfort zone or known skills.  Women are more than capable, we know that, but not everyone does, and sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

The obvious and most stereotypical barrier in the labyrinth to leadership are the parenting and household restrictions that come with being the gender who can reproduce.  Women are more likely than men to take family related absences, and are responsible for the majority of household tasks regardless of who works and how much.  Our natural desire is often to have children and then the conflict we sometimes feel between wanting to be home to care for them instead of advancing our career has to have an impact.

As mentioned earlier, women are often not only our own worst critics but we tend to be more modest about our achievements than our male counterparts.  As quiet achievers who do not self promote as well as men, it can be easy to get lost in the noise of the men around us who attract more attention to themselves whilst we quietly get on with the job at hand without fuss or fanfare.

The glass ceiling has taken a decade or two to become impenetrable, and so it may well be with the labyrinth, only time will tell.  Many things need to evolve for women to pass through the maze to leadership more smoothly, involving cultural and operational change across all levels, which can’t happen overnight.  One thing we can control and make immediate change to is our own attitudes around our belief in our ability and concern about perception.

A leader is a leader.  Assertiveness and a direct approach are positive traits regardless of your gender and leaders are developed not born.

“Aim for the sky and you'll reach the ceiling. Aim for the ceiling and you'll stay on the floor.” - Bill Shankly, Scottish Soccer player and manager, 1913 - 1981

I would love to hear about your experiences navigating through the maze of leadership.  Please comment here or connect with us on Facebook and let’s enable conversations to create cultural change.

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