Overcome Barriers to Female Leadership

What are barriers to female leadership, and how can they be overcome? Explore strategies that allow women to rise above challenges and thrive in business.
Business students in St. Kate's College for Women speaking on a panel.

Despite efforts to achieve equity in the workplace, professional women face barriers to becoming recognized leaders. According to a recent McKinsey report, professional women, especially of color, make up only a small fraction of senior leadership in organizations across the country. In fact, women hold only 21% of C-suite positions.  

What are the barriers to women in leadership, and how can professional women overcome them? By leveraging their strengths and tapping into the right resources, professional women can tenaciously push ahead and build equitable work environments where they thrive. 



Barriers to Female Leadership

In the last 50 years, professional women have jumped huge hurdles in the corporate world, advancing into top leadership positions even with the odds stacked against them. Nevertheless, persistent barriers regularly delay and obstruct their success.


Sexism, veiled or overt, holds professional women back. Sexual harassment, inequitable work environments, and subtler forms of sexism place a huge burden on professional women working toward their goals. For example, when professional women constantly get interrupted or mistaken for administrative assistants at board meetings, it takes a mental toll that can stall their progress.

Deeply ingrained attitudes and biases against women keep professional women from getting their deserved respect and finding opportunities for advancement. The United States has yet to fully dismantle the social structures that favor men over women. As a result, professional women must confront incorrect assumptions and perceptions about their abilities and capacity for leadership.

While professionals tend to assume their male colleagues are competent, they less frequently afford their female colleagues the same good opinion. Professional women often deal with colleagues or supervisors who have low expectations of them or who discount them because of their gender.

Gender Bias and Stereotyping

Gender biases and stereotyping work against professional women’s leadership aspirations. Employers tend to interpret men’s assertive behavior in the workplace as strong, commanding, and direct, but when women display the same assertiveness, their employers often see them as aggressive, pushy, and shrill.

If a female professional’s behavior doesn’t align with gender stereotypes, then she often faces backlash. However, if her behavior jibes with traditional gender roles, such as being accommodating or looking out for the best interest of others before their own, she may risk coming across as less competitive than her male counterparts.   

Less Assertive Tactics When Seeking Promotions

Perhaps women tend to use less assertive tactics when seeking promotions out of a concern they could encounter gender bias and stereotyping. Nonetheless, the failure to self-advocate a well-deserved raise or promotion slows professional women’s rise to higher levels of leadership.

Unfortunately, a lifetime of socialization that has taught women to seek perfection in themselves can also make professional women more averse to risk and therefore less pursuant of advancement. Unlike boys, whom adults typically teach to take risks and act bravely, society typically teaches girls to act cautiously. 

In the article “3 of the Most Common Challenges Women Face in Negotiations,” researcher and expert in negotiations and management Mara Olekalns discusses her field study of women’s experiences in negotiations. She found that women often hesitate to push for career advancement, citing lack of confidence and fear of backlash.  

Structural Barriers

Historical sexism and gender bias have resulted in structural barriers that serve as obstacles to women trying to climb the rungs of the corporate ladder.

Limited Access to Established Networks

Social activities, formal and informal, such as golf or happy hours, too often leave professional women out, not because women wouldn’t join but because men don’t invite them. In turn, professional women miss opportunities to build the rapport and relationships responsible for career advancement.

Professional women frequently experience limited access to established networks in which professional men often participate. This turns women into outsiders and hinders their ability to communicate, belong, and establish themselves as equals with their male colleagues and bosses.

Less Developed Female Leadership Networks

Men’s historical dominance in the workplace has resulted in less developed networks of female leaders. Such networks play a critical role in mentoring and sponsoring budding female talent. Some female leadership networks might offer formal presentations about strategies for following up in business, while others might feature casual get-togethers over wine during which professionals have a chance to build relationships and learn about one another’s businesses and how to help one another. 

However, since women leaders are in a game of catch-up, rising professional women have fewer opportunities to get the same level of support from mentors and sponsors as their male counterparts do.   

Family Responsibilities

Professional women often face significant challenges balancing work and family. Their family responsibilities can limit their ability to pursue leadership positions. That’s because despite the fact they have full-time jobs, they also frequently have the lion’s share of household responsibilities, such as caring for young, sick, or elderly family members.

According to the McKinsey report, since the onset of COVID-19, mothers in dual-career relationships (wherein both spouses work) are twice as likely as fathers in dual-career relationships to spend hours a day on chores.

Even though professional women with children at home tend to spend more time than fathers on household labor, they don’t necessarily have access to paid family leave or workplace flexibility. This imbalance affects professional women’s advancement and finances because it can require them to make personal sacrifices:

  • Taking unpaid leave
  • Downshifting their careers for needed flexibility
  • Resigning from their positions to care for family members

Strategies to Address the Challenges

In the face of these barriers to female leadership, professional women can employ several strategies to help address the challenges. 

Female Leadership Programs

Female leadership programs offer professional women supportive communities that allow them to network with others familiar with the unique challenges they face. Such programs give professional women greater insight into issues and offer them strategies and solutions.

For instance, a professional woman may lack confidence in her leadership style because it doesn’t match the model typical in her organization. However, after attending a female leadership program, she may get feedback from other participants who point out the value of her team-building methods and active listening techniques. 

By discussing how to leverage certain leadership traits associated with women, such as leading through inspiration or showing empathy, female leadership programs teach women how to capitalize on their talents. In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, by adopting traits considered typical in female business leaders, male business leaders can add greater value to their organizations.    

Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs

Mentorship and sponsorship programs are vital to professional women wanting to move ahead in their careers. Mentors share the tricks they’ve learned along the way and model successful approaches. They offer confidence-building encouragement invaluable to professional women.

Sponsors — typically professionals in influential positions — use their influence on behalf of an up-and-coming fellow employee they believe in. They help their sponsees get high-stakes assignments that give them a chance to shine. They also advocate for professional women when coveted positions open. 

Both sponsorships and mentorships empower professional women to grow, excel, and gain the visibility needed to move into the most senior-level leadership positions.    

Effective Communication About Career Advancement Goals

Overcoming barriers to women in leadership calls for effective communication about career advancement. Professional women must learn to skillfully and consistently communicate their career advancement goals and desires to their supervisors. This may involve setting up meetings with their supervisors to discuss their careers. 

Before such meetings, professional women should consider the following questions, for example:

  • What are my short- and long-term career objectives?
  • What are my strengths, and where do I have room to develop?
  • What am I willing or not willing to do to achieve my career objectives?

During discussions with their supervisors, professional women should review their accomplishments, describe their visions, and ask for guidance and next steps to achieve the goals laid out. 

Based on their impressions from the meetings, professional women can then develop personal strategies for advancing their careers. Perhaps that means researching other departments to see if they hold better opportunities or creating a solution to a problem in the organization.   

Such communication helps change misconceptions about professional women’s ambitions and drive. It also opens an important dialogue about the needed steps to charge forward. Discussing career goals empowers professional women to direct their paths and reach their growth objectives by giving them a chance to deepen their relationships with supervisors and gain clarity about how to plan for the future. 

In addition, effective communication about career goals allows professional women to get more frequent feedback and information about the actions needed to achieve their career objectives. When supervisors see focus goal-oriented employees, they are often inspired to champion their efforts.

Strategically Promoting Equity

Professional women can help eliminate barriers to their development by working with human resources and allies in leadership to influence company policies and promote equity.

For example, professional women can help form or join employee resource groups, or ERGs. ERGs discuss and strategize ways to create more equitable work environments that support employees.

An ERG can focus on improving conditions for workers or identifying and nurturing future leaders. ERGs can promote equity and influence policy decisions.  

Collaborating with human resources and allies in leadership, professional women can work toward achieving policies key to creating more balance in the workplace.

Universal Paid Family Leave

Universal paid family leave means leave that’s equally available to new mothers and new fathers — and to employees at all levels. This evens out the playing field for professional women. If everyone has this benefit, no one is seen as more of a liability and expense.

Subsidized Child Care

Subsidized child care allows parents to make better choices for their families and gives women more support for staying in the workforce.

Family Leave Policies That Don’t Create Financial Penalties

Leave policies can easily have hidden costs such as lost bonuses or lost commissions. Policies that make adjustments to account for these issues help prevent women from taking on the brunt of financial losses due to family responsibilities.

Empower Yourself to Overcome Barriers to Female Leadership

Professional women often face obstacles on their journeys to success. Nonetheless, by tapping into leadership programs, cultivating relationships with mentors and sponsors, and learning to effectively advocate for their goals and needs, they can and do achieve their professional goals.

Explore how St. Catherine University’s business programs prepare graduates to overcome barriers to female leadership and flourish in their careers.


AAUW, “Barriers & Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership”

Bostonomix, “Barriers and Bias Continue to Hold Women Back in the Workplace, Report Finds”

Business News Daily, “Key Steps Women Can Take to Be Strong Leaders”

Catalyst, “Infographic: The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership”

Forbes, “Why Leadership Training Is Critical to Helping Women Achieve Their Potential”

Forbes, “Women Are Working More Than Ever, but They Still Take On Most Household Responsibilities”

Gartner, “HR’s Role in Advancing Equity in Times of Unrest”

Granite Journal, “Barriers to Women's Leadership”

Great Place to Work, “What Are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)?”

Harvard Business Review, “A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women From Advancing Into Leadership”

Harvard Business Review, “Leaders, Stop Denying the Gender Inequity in Your Organization

Harvard Business Review, “3 of the Most Common Challenges Women Face in Negotiations”

Harvard Business Review, “7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn From Women”

LinkedIn, “LinkedIn Data Shows Women Are Less Likely to Have Strong Networks — Here’s What Companies Should Do”

McKinsey & Company, “When Women Lead, Workplaces Should Listen”

McKinsey & Company, “Women in the Workplace 2020”

The Muse, “How to Have the Career Commitment Talk With Your Boss”

The New York Times, “From Inclusion to Support: How to Build a Better Workplace”

The New York Times, “‘How Perfect Do I Need to Be?’”

Work It Daily, “How to Prepare for a Career Discussion With Your Boss”

World Economic Forum, “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Wave: Why Sponsoring Women Is a Game Changer for the Gender Gap”

World Economic Forum, “5 Ways We Lack Gender Balance in the Workplace”