Women in Leadership: Overcoming Hidden Gender Barriers

Explore the challenges women in leadership face in today's professional landscape and learn how businesses can help overcome these gender barriers.

We explore the challenges women in leadership face in today’s professional landscape, despite the tremendous value they bring to the table.

Bloomberg reports that the future of business success is female. In fact, large organisations with at least one-third of female executive board members are calculated to be around 10% more profitable than those with all-male boards. And while we are seeing a positive trend in women at executive level, with women now holding 32% of top leadership positions, up from 31% in 2021, there is still more work to be done. Women in leadership face unique challenges and hidden gender barriers in comparison to their male counterparts and, as a result, remain underrepresented in senior positions. Detrimental to both women and business, this scenario adversely affects not only gender dynamics but also overall economic success. Let’s delve into this in more detail…

What’s in this article?

Executive summary

Women in leadership presents organisations with an undeniable advantage. Whether that’s through increased innovation or sky-high profits, the bottom line is women are good for business. By increasing female representation at executive level, organisations can benefit from diversifying skill sets, tackling talent shortages, and enhancing organisational performance. However, unfortunately, women still face several barriers when it comes to attaining leadership positions, such as unconscious biases and a lack of mentorship. It is imperative that business leaders recognise and address these challenges, proposing proactive strategies to harness the full potential of the talent available to them and to bridge the gap between women in leadership.

Women in leadership bring better business outcomes

In an ideal world, we shouldn’t have to talk about the advantages of hiring more women in leadership positions. It should be self-evident that women make a valuable contribution to businesses and have just as much reason to hold leadership positions, just as men do. That being said, there are numerous studies to advocate for more women in leadership and demonstrate the improved business outcomes that come as a result of female leaders within organisations.

Tackling rising talent shortages

Research reveals that, in the UK, the skills gap is widening at an alarming rate across sectors, reaching a peak of 80% in the last 18 years. In the face of escalating talent shortages, businesses must cast their nets wider and women emerge as pivotal contributors to workforce solutions. Recognising the untapped potential of the female workforce is essential for addressing the growing gap in skilled labour. By ignoring women in your leadership recruitment, you are essentially ruling out almost 50% of available talent!

Learn more about how women are the key to bridging the digital skills gap.

Diversifying skill sets for improved innovation

As champions of diversity and inclusion, women bring unique perspectives and talents to the table, enriching organisations with innovation and resilience. By actively involving women in the workforce and ensuring equal opportunities, businesses can harness a wealth of untapped skills, mitigating talent shortages and cultivating a dynamic, well-rounded team. Embracing the diverse capabilities of women is not only a matter of equality but also a strategic imperative for sustained success in the contemporary professional landscape.

Ultimately, hiring more female board directors comes with the added benefit of diversifying skill sets at an executive level thus improving creativity, productivity, and innovation. In fact, diversity in all forms contributes to a better performing workforce - be it race, age, or academic background! For instance, individuals with different life experiences and perspectives are able to approach challenges from different angles and apply various skill sets, working together to contribute to

Improve performance and profits

It is recorded that Fortune 500 companies with female high representation on their boards experienced improved business results, including competitive financial performance. Results include an 84% advantage of return on sales, 60% on return on invested capital, and 46% on return on equity.

However, Forbes reports that studies find you must have a minimum of 30% female representation on your boards in order to see a significant boost in business performance. Additionally, it is higher performing firms that are more likely to benefit from female leadership.

4 Key challenges faced by women in leadership and how to overcome them

In the pursuit of gender equality, it's crucial to shine a light on the subtle yet formidable barriers that hinder women's progress in leadership roles, including the following:

  1. Unconscious biases
  2. Stereotypes and societal expectations
  3. Underrepresentation and lack of mentorships
  4. Limited access to high-impact opportunities

1. Unconscious biases

Unseen yet pervasive, unconscious gender biases seep into decision-making processes, subtly favouring traditional leadership traits often associated with men. One study found that in a pool of equal-performing candidates, men were 1.5 times more likely to be hired than women!

Along a similar vein, women experience double standards whereby those in leadership positions face heightened scrutiny, with their actions subjected to different expectations than their male counterparts. Identifying and challenging these double standards is essential for creating a level playing field.

Addressing and dismantling these unconscious biases is key to fostering a fair and inclusive leadership landscape. Training and awareness programmes are pivotal to combating unconscious biases and challenging gender stereotypes, especially at the senior and executive levels. And to tackle the problem at the root, recruitment processes will also need to be examined with a fine-tooth comb, to ensure practices are fair. Learn more about how to improve diversity in recruitment.

2. Stereotypes and societal expectations

Societal norms and expectations can confine women to predefined roles, making it challenging to break through traditional moulds. Overcoming deeply ingrained stereotypes is essential for empowering women to pursue and thrive in leadership roles.

In particular, the stigma surrounding work-life balance disproportionately affects women, making it challenging for them to balance family responsibilities with leadership aspirations. This stigma has a large role to play in the motherhood penalty, a phenomenon that is widening the gender pay gap and preventing women across sectors from assuming more demanding, leadership roles.

In order to overcome these challenges, organisations must implement inclusive policies, such as flexible working arrangements, childcare options, or appropriate parental leave policies.

3. Underrepresentation and lack of mentorships

Without visible figures who have successfully navigated the path to leadership, women may struggle to envision their own trajectories. Sponsors, influential advocates within an organisation, can be instrumental in championing women for key opportunities, contributing to their professional growth. The absence of these supportive figures can hinder women's progress, perpetuating gender imbalances in leadership.

Establishing mentorship programmes is a strategic move that organisations can make to address this issue and improve female representation. Mentorship provides a structured framework for experienced professionals, regardless of gender, to guide and support their less-experienced counterparts. For women, having a mentor who understands the unique challenges they may face in their career journey is invaluable. Mentorship fosters a culture of knowledge sharing, skill development, and confidence-building, paving the way for women to navigate the intricacies of leadership with greater assurance.

 Learn more about how implementing mentorships helps organisations attract, engage, and retain female talent.

4. Limited access to high-impact opportunities

A lack of access to high-profile projects or other opportunities can hinder women’s visibility and their chances of ascending to leadership positions. When women are excluded from critical projects or miss out on high-impact opportunities, their contributions may go unnoticed, limiting their professional growth.

Establishing equitable opportunities is critical for cultivating a diverse leadership pipeline. This can be achieved through equal project assignments based on skills and performance, rather than gender or favouritism. Additionally, mentorships can be beneficial as mentors can advocate for women to be included in these projects and gain the visibility necessary for career advancement.

FDM empowering women in leadership

FDM proudly upholds its commitment as an equal opportunities employer, dedicated to fostering diversity and inclusion in the technology and business sectors. We empower talent from all backgrounds and genders to climb the professional ladder and ascend to leadership.

Our commitment is reflected in inclusive policies and skill-based hiring practices designed to provide equal opportunities. Through initiatives like our specialised returners programme, we actively support women returning to work after career breaks, creating a pathway for them to excel in leadership roles.

At FDM, we believe in cultivating a workplace where talent and potential drive career progression, irrespective of gender. Do you share the same values?

Get in touch to find out more about our fresh pipeline of diverse talent, highly skilled and ready to join your teams.

About Returners Careers Team

The FDM Returners Team is a dedicated training programme to support career leavers return to work after an extended break. With intensive training through to placement with our prestigious clients and ongoing support, FDM has helped over 500 people get back to work after a career break. Currently we have over 250 enrolled on our Returners Programme.


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