As a business and career coach for women of color, I have seen firsthand the unique challenges that women face in achieving leadership parity with their male counterparts.
Despite progress towards gender equality in the workplace, women continue to face barriers to advancing to the top levels of leadership. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, women make up only 38% of first- and mid-level management positions, and just 22% of senior-level leadership positions. Numerous studies have also shown that the more women are in senior leadership positions, the more profitable and socially responsible the organization.
With such massive benefits to having strong female leaders and with such staggering barriers to achieving it, I’m always trying to help my own community of women of color and allies to navigate the professional world and its obstacles. I want to explore some of the major barriers that women face in leadership and provide practical strategies for overcoming them.
What are barriers women face in the professional world?
We’ve already established that statistically women are still vastly behind men when it comes to holding positions of power and decision making. So what are the specific obstacles that women face in the professional world?
Gender Bias is still a thing.
Gender bias is a very real barrier that women face in their career advancement and professional lives. Examples of gender bias in the workplace include stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, and often, it shows up as harmful microaggressions that men tend not to even notice. These biases often lead to women being overlooked for leadership roles or being paid less than their male counterparts.
I’ve previously shared my own story of being inspired by my male supervisor’s direct and confident communication style by saying, “I disagree.” When I modeled my communication and script after him in the workplace, I quickly learned that people did not receive it the same way. I was perceived as blunt, abrasive, and overly confident. I unfortunately had to learn how to strategically communicate my feedback and ideas as a woman, especially as a woman of color and first generation immigrant. So now that I would share feedback of disagreement I would start the sentence with, “I understand we’ve been doing this for x years, while at the same time I’ve seen these challenges xyz.”
Despite efforts to promote gender and racial equality in the workplace, many women still face discrimination and bias in hiring, promotion, and pay–and it’s even worse for women of color who often feel they have to conform to different ideals in the workplace.
If you are a woman of color navigating obstacles in the professional world, I highly encourage you to take a listen to these two Color Your Dream Podcast episodes:
Episode 31: “ How to Advocate for Yourself as a WOC in Corporate America with Lindsey Ingram” on Apple or Spotify.
Episode 41: “Redefining Success as a WOC and First Generation Immigrant with Kat Magsaysay” on Apple or Spotify.
Work Life Balance and Long Work Hours
Work-life balance is critical for women in leadership. However, women often face unique challenges in balancing work and personal life. While gender norms and roles have diversified, women still tend to bear the higher burden when it comes to family life and household chores. Beyond child raising, women also tend to take on more of the caregiving responsibility for other family members such as parents and grand-parents. When organizations do not honor the need for more flexible work schedules and work hours, women lose out on professional opportunities. Work-life balance is essential to the mental well being of women and men, but specifically to women when it comes to career advancement, as they juggle work and family responsibilities, leading to stress and burnout.
If you are feeling exhausted by work expectations, listen to Episode 5 of the Color Your Dreams Podcast: “Time and Energy Management to Get Your Life Back” on Apple or Spotify.
Weaker Professional Networks
Men have had much longer in the professional workplace to grow their personal networks of references, mentors, and sponsors. While women’s networking events and groups are on the rise and now part of a large industry movement, women are still developing professional networks. For women of color, finding the right mentors and more so sponsors for the advancement of their careers can still be a large challenge without the access to the right people.
On top of this, for hundreds of years so much of support system building and networking has happened in informal settings like after work drinks, sporting events, or on the golf course–places where women traditionally have not been invited.
Gender Pay Gap Persists
Despite progress and national media attention on the issue of a gender pay gap–it still exists. A recent article shared that the pay gap has narrowed by 2% over the last year, and if the rate does not improve, it would take a century for women to earn as much as men.
Beyond all the other barriers women face in the workplace, it can be incredibly difficult to find the motivation and persistence to keep trying when you are getting paid significantly less than your male counterparts. Work must be done to address the inequity of the gender gap on an organizational level, and quickly.
You can learn more about how to negotiate the salary you deserve by reading this blog and by checking out Color Your Dreams Podcast Episode 6: Charging Your Worth as a WOC and Being an Imperfect Ally with Erica Courdae and India Jackson on Apple and Spotify.
Strategies for Organizations to Minimize Barriers to Women in Leadership
Organizations and companies need to bear the brunt of work to minimize barriers to women in leadership. While it’s a massive system to dismantle, there are strategies that can be implemented on every level to lessen the negative impact on women.
Provide Women Opportunities for Networking
Organizations should not just support women in developing their own support systems, but prioritize the building of these networks at the organizational level. Senior leadership can provide women with networking opportunities on the clock, develop funds to send women to professional networking events, and prioritize the establishment of colleague social hours where employees can have a safe space to share feedback, experiences, and ideas together.
In my own work as a business coach for women of color and allies, I host in person business retreats twice a year. The importance of providing space for community for women is essential to career advancement and business growth. I share more reflections from what I’ve learned through my retreats in Episode 5 of the Color Your Dreams Podcast: “5 Reflections from My Retreat with Business Owners” on Apple or Spotify.
Address Bias and Discrimination in the Workplace
The issue of bias and discrimination is a huge one, and it can be sneaky and hard to target. Companies can find real world solutions by using data-driven strategies to do their part in minimizing the bias against women.
At a minimum, having some sort of tangible diversity, equity, and inclusion programs is a must. Whether this is a team dedicated to reviewing policies and decisions with an equity lens or a trained DEI consultant coming in regularly to make recommendations, organizations must always prioritize company assessments and implement the suggested solutions whenever possible.
Providing employees and all leadership staff with mandatory trainings for anti-sexual harassment and unconscious bias can be incredibly beneficial in supporting women leaders and team members.
On the Color Your Dreams Podcast, I spoke with my own DEI consultants, Erica Courdae and India Jackson of Pause on the Play, for a conversation about bias and discrimination. You can listen to Episode 40: “Why Difficult Conversations Improve Our Life + Work Relationships with Erica Courdae and India Jackson” on Apple or Spotify.
Adopt Flexible Work Arrangements
Women that can occasionally work from home experience fewer instances of microaggressions and tend to stay with their company longer. Those in top leadership positions need to advocate for more flexible work arrangements for these reasons, but also to accommodate women who bear the burden of more caregiving responsibilities of children and other family members.
Creating policies that are more adaptable to sick time, paid family leave, flexible work hours and the ability to work from home can greatly minimize barriers to leadership that women currently experience.
Invest in and Encourage Female Leadership Development
When companies see the value in investing in female talent, more pathways to leadership become available for women. Creating a company culture of learning can be done through providing professional development funds, hosting trainings and workshops aimed toward advancing women in their careers, and connecting women with mentors and sponsors that are in decision-making positions, and paying for employees to attend professional conferences.
You can find more of my resources concerning leadership development in these blogs:
- The Importance of Accountability in Leadership
- Leadership Skills
- Why Executive Coaching is Important in Leadership, Business, and Career
- Resolving Workplace Conflict
And if you are wanting to become a better leader, check out more information about my leadership coaching services.
Strategies for Women to Succeed In Leadership
Build Your Own Confidence and Self Esteem
As a woman, and even more as a woman of color, before you can convince others of your value, you better fully believe it yourself. With so many obstacles to face in the professional world, we have to work even harder on our self care and self esteem. Here’s where you can start:
- Overcoming imposter syndromeIt’s toxic, unhelpful, and a real drag to navigate, but also incredibly normal for women in top leadership positions to experience imposter syndrome. Listen to Episode 2 of the Color Your Dreams Podcast: “Why You Need to Selfishly Put Yourself First as a WOC and Ally with Nicole Cruz” on Apple or Spotify.
- Develop your self-awareness and emotional intelligenceWhen we better understand our own motivations, behaviors, reactions, and triggers, we can better assess how others interpret us as well. The best leaders are first and foremost self aware leaders. I wrote all about these in this article, so dive in and get started on your own self-awareness journey.
- Learn how to have conscious conversationsUnfortunately, women are still having to fight harder than ever to carve out pathways to leadership. On your own career path, you’ll have an even harder time if you shy away from difficult conversations. Whether it’s learning to negotiate your salary, understanding how to give feedback at work, or advocating for your own promotion, you have to get comfortable having conscious conversations.
To get started learning, check out these two podcast episodes which are packed full of advice for having difficult conversations.
“From Cancel Culture to Conscious Conversations in Business and Life.” You can listen to this 23-minute podcast episode on Apple or Spotify.
“Why Difficult Conversations Improve Our Life + Work Relationships with Erica Courdae and India Jackson.” You can listen to this 52-minute podcast episode on Apple or Spotify
Expand Your Community and Networks
As they say, “It’s all about who you know.”
While the days of getting a job simply from being childhood neighbors with the CEO may be over, who you spend your time with still plays a hugely important role in your professional endeavors. Having a support system of professionals around you who encourage your growth, share experiences and contacts with you, and learn alongside you is a huge boost.
Alongside developing a community of similarly leveled professional women, spend time finding mentors and sponsors for your advancement. When seeking a mentor, look for someone who has experience and expertise in your field and who shares your values and goals. You can reach out to potential mentors through LinkedIn or professional organizations and express your interest in working with them. It’s important to approach mentorship as a two-way relationship where you both benefit from the interaction.
If you are interested in working with me as your executive leadership coach, schedule a call to see if it’s a good fit to work together or check out my business retreats which are founded on the importance of holding space with a community.
Actively Seek Out Leadership Development Opportunities
When leadership opportunities seem few and far between at work, seek them out yourself. Of course, ask your employer if they have funding for professional development available to you, but even on your own you can find some great accessible programs.
Developing your leadership skills is one of your greatest ways to prepare for future professional challenges. Whether it’s a free webinar, a specific training, or working with an executive coach, pick an opportunity to challenge yourself and witness the growth that comes from it.
As a business and career coach for women of color, I understand the unique challenges that women face in achieving parity with men in top leadership positions. Through my work,I hope to provide practical strategies and guidance for women seeking to overcome these barriers and advance in their careers and businesses. By addressing gender bias, promoting work-life balance, developing female talent, and providing senior leadership opportunities, we can create more inclusive and diverse workplaces that benefit all genders. With the right support and resources, women can succeed in leadership and help to close the gender gap for future generations.
If you are interested in working with me as your executive leadership coach, schedule a call to see if it’s a good fit to work together.