Women in Leadership: How Breaking Barriers Empowers Everyone

Mar 21, 2024 | Employee Engagement, Professional Development

Dismantling gender barriers plays a key role in enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. In this article, we’ll explore the current status of women in leadership roles—and how to enhance gender diversity in leadership.

Women have been demonstrating their strong capacity to lead organizations for many years. However, achieving equity in the contemporary workplace remains an ongoing battle. Let’s examine the historical context of women’s transition into leadership roles and the evolving landscape of women’s leadership.

Table of Contents

1. The Current State of Women in Leadership

2. Barriers to Women’s Leadership

3. The Business Case for Women Leaders

4. Overcoming Stereotypes and Changing Perceptions

5. Strategies to Empower Women in Leadership

The Current State of Women in Leadership

Women make up 47.4% of the U.S. workforce but hold just 42.1% of managerial roles. At higher levels of leadership, representation decreases further. In the U.S., the percentage of women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies reached an all-time high of 10.6% in 2023, according to the Pew Research Center. The percentage of women on boards of directors rose to 30.4% in 2022, they add. And the percentage of women in C-suite jobs in the top 1,000 companies has reached 25%

In Canada, women hold 30.9% of senior leadership positions, 35.6% of managerial roles, and 18.3% of board member roles. However, just 6.6% of the largest companies have a woman CEO. Globally, women hold 32% of high-level leadership roles. 

In the UK, women hold 14% of executive directorship roles. According to The Guardian, women entrepreneurs also face more difficulty in getting a loan for their business than men.

These industries lead the way in terms of appointing women as leaders:

  • In the academic world, 32.8% of university presidents are women, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s three times higher than in 1986.
  • Outside of education, the utilities sector (21%) and healthcare (16%) are two of the industries with the highest representation of women.
  • The percentage of women in leadership roles in large tech companies has grown by 19.5% between 2019 and 2022, reports Deloitte. As of 2022, women hold 22.5% of leadership roles in that industry.

Across U.S. states, New Mexico has the highest representation of women in executive roles (46.1%), followed by Vermont (44.3%), Delaware (42.4%), and Montana (42.1%), says U.S. News & World Report.

Despite substantial progress, gender diversity in leadership remains lacking. While women have begun reaching the higher echelons of the business world in greater numbers, much work remains to be done.

Barriers to Women’s Leadership

Let’s explore some common obstacles that women face in rising to leadership positions.

Gender Bias: The Broken Rung

The glass ceiling isn’t the greatest barrier to advancement for women—the broken rung is, McKinsey asserts. Too few women are promoted to their first managerial position, which causes them to fall behind in their careers. That’s particularly true for Black women, who are promoted at a rate of just 54 to every 100 white men.

Women tend to receive less career advancement support from their managers than men, even when they voice a desire to advance. Women, and particularly women of colour, frequently don’t hear about internal job openings that they might be qualified for, says the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). And too often, they lack the professional networks that men benefit from. If top organizational leaders are men, they may nurture and build camaraderie with male protégés while neglecting talented women.

Lack of support for women as leaders also stems from persistent gender biases. For instance, the idea that women will be too busy caring for children to lead still influences promotional and talent development decisions in many companies.

Inequities in Salary

Women typically pay a financial penalty for becoming mothers, while men tend to get a financial bonus for fatherhood. Women without children earn 90 cents to every dollar that men earn, while women with at least one child earn 85 cents, says the Canadian Women’s Foundation. 

“The gender pay gap is worse for those who face multiple barriers, including racialized women, Indigenous women, and women with disabilities,” says the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “Though it differs by age group, the gap starts from a young age and carries into the senior years.”

Work-Life Balance Challenges

Women commonly face a higher burden of childcare and related duties outside of work than men. Plus, the burden of caring for aging parents tends to fall on them as well. Without flexible work policies, some women may feel forced to postpone advancement or take a career break.


Dealing with persistent microaggressions can also take a heavy toll on women, as McKinsey notes. Examples include the following:

  • Being mistaken as a junior staff member
  • Facing disparaging remarks about being “too emotional”
  • Having others take credit for their ideas
  • Not being heard in meetings

“Women who experience microaggressions are much less likely to feel psychologically safe, which makes it harder to take risks, propose new ideas, or raise concerns. The stakes feel just too high,” says McKinsey. “On top of this, 78 percent of women who face microaggressions self-shield at work, or adjust the way they look or act in an effort to protect themselves. For example, many women code-switch—or tone down what they say or do—to try to blend in and avoid a negative reaction at work.” They might avoid taking risks that could reveal their full spectrum of talents or introduce important innovations in a climate of gender inequity.

These barriers can all dramatically affect women’s career advancement while causing organizations to miss out on the full use of their talent.

The Business Case for Women Leaders

A woman leader in a business meeting with her colleagues
Credit: Yan Krukau/ Pexels

Diversity in leadership acts as a key driver of business success. Research compellingly shows that companies with more women on their boards, or more gender diversity among top leaders, outperform others. Women often possess high levels of emotional intelligence and the related human skills that facilitate great leadership, as Solomon Amar writes in Forbes. Hence, women frequently act as transformational leaders who help people tune in to their intrinsic motivation to fulfill the organization’s mission and build trust through compassion.

“Female managers are more likely than their male counterparts to aspire to higher-level roles because they would be good at it or because they’re interested in taking on more or different responsibilities,” SHRM found in a study of HR leaders. In other words, they seek to advance for the good of the whole organization rather than just personal achievement.

For all of these reasons, women in leadership roles have a positive influence on business outcomes, like profitability, innovation, and employee satisfaction. For example, in Aritzia, a high-end retail company, top leadership consists of 73% women, notes The Globe and Mail. Aritzia employs more women as top leaders than any other major public Canadian company, they assert. Through a strong culture of mentorship and promoting from within, they’ve grown to an empire of over 100 stores and revenue of $1.5 billion.

Now, let’s explore how to foster a cultural shift that supports women in leadership.

Overcoming Stereotypes and Changing Perceptions

Shifting stereotypes about gender roles and advocating for women as leaders requires commitment from everyone. Investment from HR and organizational leaders will ensure the changes proliferate throughout the workplace. Here are two key strategies for making this cultural shift.

  1. Provide training on how to avoid gender bias, as well as intersectional forms of bias. According to the American Psychological Association, men who receive such training are far more likely to act as allies to women. Teach men how to use their privilege to make the workplace more egalitarian. Managers should undergo training on how to address bias within their teams as well as within themselves.
  2. Normalize talking about microaggressions, as McKinsey urges. In your training, discuss how to effectively confront and avoid them. Share examples of how to respond when hearing a microaggression directed at a peer, fostering a culture that doesn’t tolerate such statements or practices.

In daily work, men should strive to challenge gender stereotypes and harmful behaviours. For example, a male coworker could say, “Hey, Lydia just voiced a groundbreaking idea, and you’re all talking over her. Can we back up for a second and discuss it?”

Strategies to Empower Women in Leadership

HR managers having a meeting about women empowerment strategies
Credit: LinkedIn Sales Navigator/ Pexels

Let’s discuss how HR and organizational leaders can support women in advancing to higher levels through key policy changes. Without formal policies and systems, plans too often fail to become a reality. Policy changes like these will help instill the desired cultural shifts and tangible outcomes.

  • Measure your current level of gender diversity in leadership and set appropriate targets. As Deloitte says, setting clear targets will help you intentionally diversify your leadership pipeline and meet your goals.
  • Formalize developmental support programs so everyone will have access to the same opportunities. For example, formal mentorship programs will help ensure everyone gets similar career advice, guidance, and sponsorship.
  • Make internal job openings known to everyone in the organization. Ensure that managers are discussing them with all those who meet the criteria.
  • Offer flexible work policies, in terms of hours and location. Provide supportive benefits as well, like daycare or elder care assistance.
  • Create formal return-to-work policies to make it easier for parents to return to the workforce. A “returnship program” can help returning parents upgrade their skills and learn about organizational changes as they prepare to step back into a role.
  • Offer employee resource groups for women, and women of colour, that help people with common identities forge a sense of belonging. In such groups, employees can share insights and advice on overcoming common challenges, with support from HR.
  • Take steps to eliminate bias from performance reviews. Create a formal scoring system and give managers a refresher on how to use it before every cycle. Use performance review software that helps you implement a well-structured process to ensure fairness. Hold “calibration sessions” where reviewers explain their ratings to other managers, facilitated by HR.
  • Provide networking opportunities for all employees that allow them to connect with a wider range of peers and leaders.
  • Engage in blind resume screening to build a more egalitarian hiring process, as the American Association of University Women (AAUW) says. Ensure that a mixed-gender group is making hiring decisions, too. In job information, encourage people returning to work after a career break to apply.
  • Ban salary history questions from job applications, too, as the AAUW also advises. An inequitable past salary shouldn’t pose a barrier to an equitable salary in the present. 
  • Review all current salary information for your employees and leaders, making adjustments as needed to ensure equity.

Diversity in leadership enhances a company’s success; having women in leadership positions fosters greater motivation among all employees. As you strive to support women’s advancement into leadership roles, you’ll cultivate a more equitable and effective workplace. Strategies like providing clear developmental programs and offering flexible work policies will guide your success. Rather than becoming disillusioned and seeking companies that appreciate their talents, women will find greater fulfillment in your organization. Plus, you’ll more fully leverage the wealth of talent within your company.

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