The battle for women to gain entry into positions of power has been long fought, and while many inroads have been made, there continue to be significant gaps in women’s representation in leadership. In the political sphere, women are still struggling to gain access to political capital, making up only 22% of national legislatures worldwide. Shifting to the private sector, the disparity in women’s representation only gets worse. Women currently hold only 30 — or 6% — of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. One interesting takeaway from these results is that women are underrepresented at every level, not just the top tiers. For instance, 62% of managers and 51% of entry-level workers were men in 2019. Women of color are even further underrepresented. In 2019, women of color made up 4% of C-level executives, 5% of senior vice presidents, and 7% of vice presidents.
There are four types of barriers to leadership for women: structural barriers, institutional mindsets, individual mindsets, and lifestyle choices.
When we talk about structural barriers, one only has to think about the metaphor of the ‘glass ceiling’ first used by Nora Frenkiel to describe the often-invisible obstacles to women’s mobility within chains of command in the workforce. More recently, gendered gaps have become increasingly institutionalized to the point where on the surface an organization may have women in leadership positions, but at an extreme cost to those women who hold them, as they must be subject to burdens of stereotyping, prejudice, sexual harassment, tokenism, and isolation. These kinds of barriers are often referred to as the ‘labyrinth,’ for the complex intersecting challenges women must navigate in order to gain access to power.
Institutional mindsets are bred from these structural barriers and are often a part of gatekeeping access to power for women. Many institutions house cultures that are toxic to women, especially BIOPIC women, who are especially vulnerable to harassment in the workplace. Mindsets such as those which foster ‘old boys club’ attitudes within institutions position women as outsiders, and objects of male desire, rather than equal partners in leadership. It can be difficult for women to navigate these contexts. Often these institutional mindsets are so normalized that women feel powerless to challenge them.
Individual mindsets are influenced by the societal institutions that shape them. Because of the toxic cultures generated by institutional mindsets, damaging stereotypes about women’s ability to succeed in positions of power become reinforced. These stereotypes often include the idea that traits we associate with leadership such as assertion and control, are qualities usually attributed to men. Women on the other hand are expected to display communal qualities like affection, helpfulness, and gentleness. In professional contexts, this translates to the expectation that in order to be taken seriously women must be cold, and take on male-associated traits.
The biggest remaining challenge is how to reconcile women’s new roles in the workforce with their continuing role in the family. Over 40% of all mothers are either the sole or the primary breadwinners for their families. This includes many who are single parents. Many feminist scholars have written about the unequal division of labour in the home, whereby women’s work is undervalued. Unfortunately, women’s entry into the workforce has not changed the nuclear family dynamic which continues to place the domestic demand on women. This demand does not translate well for women looking to conquer the glass ceiling. Often, to get into positions of power, the expectation is that family life comes second. This frames family as a choice for women – either they choose to be mothers, or choose a career.
Study conducted by Pew Research Centre: