• Sharon Peake

The 10 barriers blocking female progression in your organisation

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

#genderequality #genderbalance

Despite progress in advancing women’s representation in the workplace, The World Economic Forum has found that we are still a century away from closing the economic gender gap globally. And in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, even organisations with the strongest track record, will need to redouble their efforts to avoid losing the gains they’ve made [1]. But how can organisations take such a nuanced and multi-faceted issue and significantly move the needle of progress.

Our research shows that an interplay of three key barriers exist to greater representation of women in senior leadership roles: societal, personal and organisational [2]. Within this framework we’ve identified a critical subset of structural and cultural barriers that occur in organisations. This article focuses on these ten barriers and what employers can do to address them.

Structural Barriers:

1. Unequal access to sponsorship: a study reported in Harvard Business Review found a strong gender bias in mentoring support, with women typically encouraged to change and adapt in order to progress, while men were given public support and helped to take charge of their careers [3]. Senior level men are 50 per cent more likely to have a sponsor [4], and without a sponsor’s influence to advocate for the ‘sponsoree’ in the most senior executive circles, women are not always equally considered during the closed-door promotion and succession discussions. Implementing a formal Sponsorship Programme, with clear expectations and deliberately matched sponsors with sponsorees, can significantly help bridge this gap for women.

2. Elusive critical experiences: the absence of visible, high-profile assignments inhibit women’s career progression, particularly at the ‘off-ramp’ stage of their careers (28‑45yo). Organisations can mitigate this barrier by deliberately offering targeted development experiences that provide visibility of female talent – such as gaining P&L accountability, leading a product or team turnaround, or launching a new revenue stream.

3. Lack of role models: positive role models increase career commitment and satisfaction, and we know that women are likely to pay this role modelling forward. Organisations can help by publicly celebrating and giving visibility to their top female talent, as well as offering mentoring and sponsorship programmes to develop more junior talent.

4. Less powerful networks: a powerful network can increase both the speed and likelihood of promotion. Yet various studies have shown that informal networks are often segregated by gender and race, and as such, women are less likely than men to have the strong professional networks, insider information, and social ties to elites that are critical to promotion. Additionally, whereas men’s work and social networks tend to overlap, this occurs less with women’s networks. As it is more time consuming to maintain two networks, this can put women at a disadvantage[5]. This can be redressed by providing formal opportunities to interact with high-status execs across functional, organisational and geographic lines and for executives to formally introduce and ‘hand over’ relationships in a managed and positive way.

5. The ‘trailing spouse’: the prerequisite, in many global organisations, to develop talent through international assignments can be a barrier for women. With more men than women being the primary breadwinner, research has found the majority of men feel confident of their female partner making a career compromise to support their career, while less than half of women feel their male spouse would do the same [6]. Despite the challenges this implies, organisations need to rethink their global experience culture and the ways in which they can diversify it, such as leading global teams virtually, or spending shorter periods in other countries without the need for long-term relocation of spouse and family.

Cultural Barriers:

1. ‘Always available’ culture: McKinsey found the dominant model in the business world equates senior leadership with total geographic mobility and 24/7 availability. When viewed in the context of the known Double Burden or Second Shift where woman are carrying a disproportionately larger share of domestic and care work, this leadership expectation becomes the single greatest barrier to gender equity. Companies that can start to dismantle these unrealistic workplace demands will access a more diverse talent pool.

2. Unconscious bias and gender stereotyping: Despite having a significant impact on women’s career advancement, unconscious bias can often be difficult to observe or influence. A large-scale study by the ILO found that organisations with a male CEO and/or Chair were more likely to have a male-dominated organisational culture [7]. Recognising and actively counterbalancing this, through education on bias and privilege at the very top of the organisation, is necessary to promote and safeguard a fair playing field.

3. Micro-aggressions and everyday sexism: nearly two-thirds of women have experienced everyday sexism or micro-aggressions in the workplace, such as their comments being dismissed, having to provide more evidence of their competence or being mistaken for someone more junior. These behaviours can deter women from wishing to advance their careers or even reduce their belief that career advancement is possible. Educating employees and holding them to account on such behaviour is important. Initiatives such as ‘listening’ circles, where such slights can be discussed in a psychologically safe environment, can be helpful at raising awareness and accountability.

4. Male competence assumptions: According to Stanford University, research consistently shows that in stereotypically male tasks – including leadership – men are perceived to be more competent than women [8]. Powerful sociological wiring means that men are judged by a more lenient standard than women which is even more pronounced in traditional, male dominated cultures. While an incredibly nuanced and mostly unconscious process, organisations must actively work to counterbalance bias in their appointment and promotion decisions. Awareness-raising of all individuals involved in recruitment and selection decisions, along with de-biasing the underlying processes, is critical.

5. Glass cliffs: A study of Fortune 500 CEOs found women twice as likely as men to be appointed to high risk, or glass cliff, roles [9]. At the same time, the women reported reduced power and authority to implement strategy, resulting in shorter CEO tenures and higher failure rates. In order for organisations to dismantle the underpinning gender bias of glass cliff appointments, they need to remain vigilant and provide transparency and rigour in their executive appointment decisions.


A dynamic interplay of these barriers occurs over the course of a career and within different organisations and industries. While every organisation is different in their challenges, we have identified the five most impactful interventions to help achieve gender equity in the workplace:

1. Visible senior leadership commitment and measurement: If the top team show their commitment to inclusion efforts, through visible means such as targets and active monitoring of key metrics, it sends a very clear message to the rest of the organisation that this needs to be taken seriously.

2. Women’s development programmes: While there has been much debate on the merits of development programmes targeted specifically at women, the evidence suggests that creating a safe setting which allows women to develop their own authentic leadership style and identity is crucial[10]. Focused development programmes for women allow just that.

3. Moving beyond the ‘one and done’ tickbox approach: Minority groups need to be represented in critical mass in order to avoid tokenism and to enable meaningful change. The ‘one and done’ tick box approach to appointing individuals from minority groups to visible roles, in order to supposedly satisfy external scrutiny, can be harmful to the individuals appointed if they are not supported.

4. Making flexibility the norm for both men and women: A flexible approach to work – not just in where work is done (let’s face it, most people are working from home currently) but how and when work is done (part-time, compressed hours etc) – enables all employees to manage the demands of career and family responsibilities in a way that suits them. Encouraging flexibility as a normal way of working for both men and women helps to de-stigmatise flexible working and stop it being seen as a ‘women’s issue’ and a potential career derailer.

5. De-biasing the system by scrutinising all HR processes to ensure no unintentional bias: As a minimum, HR practices need to be scrutinised from top to bottom to ensure they don’t inadvertently undermine diversity and inclusion efforts. Recruitment, promotion, appraisal and reward practices should be carefully reviewed to ensure no in-built bias. Stripping out gendered language from job descriptions and ads, removing identifying information from CVs – such as race and gender, ensuring balanced interview and promotion panels, and analysing appraisal and salary data for different minority groups to ensure no inadvertent unfair treatment, are all powerful ways of removing bias from the employee lifecycle.

Additionally, it is important that organisations take the time to thoroughly investigate and diagnose which barriers are having the most significant impact in their organisation. This can be achieved by a meaningful analysis of existing data (e.g. performance, recruitment, promotion, succession, turnover, pay and engagement) to pinpoint patterns. Focus groups and interviews can complement and further explore the identified patterns as a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to yield strong results. Engaging men in the dialogue is critical to ensuring the buy-in of individuals and many (male) leaders whose support will be necessary to implementing positive changes. Success will rely on a proactive, prioritised policy of inclusion which is directly linked to business strategy.

Sharon Peake is the founder and MD of Shape Talent Ltd, a gender equality coaching and consulting business established with the sole purpose of getting more women into senior leadership roles in business. We work with organisations to remove the barriers to women’s progression and we work with individual women, helping them to achieve their career potential. 

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[1]. Shape Talent, (1 June, 2020). Why gender diversity matters now more than ever.

[2]. Shape Talent (2019). The 3 Barriers to Women’s Progression: And what organisations can do about them.

[3]. Harvard Business Review (September 2010). Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women.

[4]. Centre for Talent Innovation (2012). Sponsor effect.

[5]. Herminia Ibarra (2016). https://herminiaibarra.com/why-strategic-networking-is-harder-for-women/

[6]. Bain & Co (2010). The Great Disappearing Act: Gender Parity up the Corporate Ladder.

[7]. International Labour Organization (2019). Women in business and management: The business case for change.

[8]. The Stanford Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research (2013). Creating a level playing field.

[9]. Glass, C. & Cook, A. (2016). Leading at the top: Understanding women’s challenges above the glass ceiling. The Leadership Quarterly, 27, 51-63.

[10]. Harvard Business Review (September 2013). Women rising: The unseen barriers.

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