Unseen barriers for female leaders

Unseen barriers for female leaders
June 30, 2023

Even in today's world, women face significant yet often unseen barriers to success in business. While blatant discrimination and harassment have declined in many industries, subtle biases and structural obstacles continue to hold women back in their careers. These barriers are pervasive yet hard to recognise. True gender equity in the workplace will only come about when we acknowledge these unseen barriers and make a dedicated effort to dismantle them.

Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias refers to the mental associations we form about gender, influenced by cultural stereotypes and experiences. But these automatic associations we have can feed into negative decision-making practices. Considering the multitude of barriers women face, particularly in leadership roles, it's crucial for colleagues to combat their unconscious biases. Such bias can negatively impact the hiring and promotion of women, since stereotypes about gender roles disadvantage female candidates. Studies show that women are judged as having less leadership potential than men. Research undertaken into one North American retail chain found women were 14% less likely to be promoted than men, every year. 

Double binds

This implicit association between leadership and masculinity holds women back from rising in business. But it also ties into a broader double bind, in that women who behave in a masculine way are seen as too abrasive, yet if they’re too feminine, they’re seen as weak and unable to lead a team. “I think having conversations about how ambition is expressed in women is a good starting point”, explains MPB’s Chief Technology Officer, Sophie Davies-Patrick, “Shifting the balance from output of work to outcomes achieved is one way to do this. Flexible working and a clear career structure can really help here”. 

Structural barriers

One of the key barriers holding women back is the lack of flexibility and work-life balance in many leadership roles, which can result in gaps in careers and a lack of confidence. Top leadership positions usually require long work hours and the willingness to prioritise work over personal life, which can be hard for women who still tend to be primary caretakers in the home. The lack of flexibility and paid family leave policies in most companies make it difficult for women to advance in their careers during child-rearing years, and this contributes to the leaky pipeline where women drop out of the leadership track and never return.

Lack of mentorship opportunities

Equally, the lack of mentorship and sponsorship also hinders many women from achieving leadership roles. Mentorship is a key element of career advancement in most companies, providing women with the guidance and support they need to progress. But women often have a hard time finding mentors to support them. Senior leaders tend to mentor and sponsor those who are most like themselves and, in most companies, the top leaders are still overwhelmingly male. The lack of mentorship and access to influential networks are considerable barriers for women looking to break through the glass ceiling. 

Solutions and strategies to overcome these barriers

Prioritise education in the workplace

Many people aren’t aware when they’re the victim of discrimination, or may even deny it. But our society favours men and this not only negatively impacts women but other minority groups too. To combat this discrimination and to make it easier for employees to spot it, education is essential. Building awareness of the biases and stereotypes that can be commonplace in business will help people to recognise when men and women aren’t being held to the same standards. With proper education on the matter, it’s easier for people to call out discrimination and stereotyping in their workplace. 

Provide more mentorship opportunities and role models

Senior leaders should make a concerted effort to mentor high-potential women in their industry. Sponsorship can be particularly impactful in terms of advocating for new opportunities and promotions for women. Having male sponsors in decision-making positions can help to provide women with more credibility, but women should also have successful women as role models if industries are to encourage young women to pursue leadership roles. 

Role models provide us with a different way of viewing ourselves and our capabilities. They set a pathway for what’s possible and give us confidence to make decisions we may otherwise have shied away from. The more female role models we can provide future generations with, the higher the likelihood that we’ll see more female leaders in the years to come.

Facilitate valuable workplace benefits

Pay rises are key to attracting top talent to any role, but benefits should extend beyond just salary increases. From employee training that gives women the skills they need to progress, to initiatives that promote better work-life balance, it opens opportunities for women to take on leadership opportunities. So many women still remain the primary caregivers and homemakers in their homes, so businesses need to be adaptable and flexible to the many demands that women need to balance. Offering a range of workplace benefits that go beyond pay will make leadership roles not only more desirable but also a more viable option for women. 

Reverse stereotypes

In order to see more women at the top, businesses need to reverse the stereotypes and break the typically male-focused C-suite. Whether it’s tech and engineering or finance, decision-makers need to stop viewing industries and senior roles as being suitable for men only and give more women these opportunities for more equity in business.


Following a recent Network Rail Women in Engineering Day, project manager and co-chair of Inspire, Vanessa Wragg, highlighted the importance of, “proving and demonstrating that women have a space in a place that they have historically been excluded from.” Companies need to be acutely aware of the risks associated with gendered career paths to prevent women from getting pigeonholed into roles such as HR, administration and communication, where women have historically been concentrated. 


The barriers to women's success are a real concern, but the issues women face when it comes to progression are not insurmountable. With greater awareness, intentional action and sustained commitment to change, we can create workplaces where the talents and skills of both women and men are recognised, valued, and promoted equally. By bringing these unseen barriers to light and finding constructive solutions, we can empower women and unlock the full potential of companies and communities.


Our guest writer is Dakota Murphey, a Brighton based independent writer with over 15 years’ experience creating articles and winning content for a number of authoritative sites . She specialises in business, marketing and HR. 


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