7 Challenges Female Leaders Face in the Workplace – And How to Combat Them

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challenges female leaders face in the workplace

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, we want to talk about women’s equality in the workplace. For many decades, the American workforce was dominated by men. Even with all the progress we’ve made in recent years, there are still many lingering effects of the past.

It’s estimated women account for almost half the global workforce. Yet, only about 27% of women are in management and leadership positions. Even fewer hold top-tier, C-suite level jobs.

Although opportunities for women have grown in the workplace, there’s still a significant gap between male and female employees in management. Females face discrimination and get stuck in entry-level roles, and many still struggle to obtain and maintain senior-leadership positions.

At Strategy People Culture, we work closely with many inspiring and dedicated female leaders. As a result, we’ve received an up-close look at the unique obstacles women face in their workplaces. This has aided our study and strategies for combating gender-related barriers.

Today on our blog, we want to share seven challenges women face in the workplace. Furthermore, we’re discussing tactics for battling them head-on and leveling the playing field.

1. Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias

The first big hurdle many female leaders face is unconscious bias. This can be anything from a belief in gender stereotypes to subconscious attitudes about female capabilities. Bias can also manifest as preferences for women that act, speak, and dress in certain ways.

Unconscious biases about female employees are especially detrimental in management and leadership spheres. Research shows such biases can make it far more difficult (and slower) for women to climb to executive positions than men.

Explicit bias and discrimination are illegal and frowned upon by today’s society. Still, many female leaders struggle with subconscious judgment from peers and higher-ups. Therefore, they are often less likely to get the promotion or be assigned “leadership” tasks than their male counterparts.

Tackling unconscious biases in the workplace isn’t easy. These biases are born from a variety of factors. Addressing them requires taking a hard look at how a workplace functions, then implementing anti-discrimination training and better equity practices.

2. Unequal Pay

Wage Gap Between Male And Female Leaders And Employees

Dr. King often spoke about laborers’ rights and civil rights. Unfortunately, pay gaps are still prevalent between men and women in the workplace.

Although the gender pay gap of the 1990s is narrowing, women in executive positions still earn between 8% and 25% less than male executives in comparable positions. There are fewer female leaders than males in most businesses, but even those at the C-suite levels are often paid less than their male counterparts.

The solution to this challenge isn’t simply to pay women leaders equally, although that should certainly be a goal. It goes beyond numbers and extends into the opportunities females are presented in the workplace.

Companies need to assess how promotions are accessed and offered. In many workplaces, women are more likely to hold lower-paid leadership positions, such as those in marketing or HR. As a result, these female leaders are paid less because they have smaller opportunities to break into “high-paying” C-suite positions.

To combat the gender pay gap, companies need to welcome women at all levels of leadership, including the top of the corporate ladder. Leaders today have a responsibility to push for and maintain diverse pools for promotions and new hires. Beyond that, businesses have a duty to pay their employees equally, regardless of gender.

3. Difficult Expectations


As harsh as it sounds, female leaders often face lower (or different) expectations than their male counterparts. Even in senior management positions, research from DiversityQ reveals that women are more likely to report feeling forced to:

  • Balance respect with likability
  • Overcome preconceptions
  • Deal with cultural expectations related to gender

On top of that, worldwide research still indicates women are taken less seriously as leaders than their male counterparts. They are less likely to be given “authoritative” roles and generally face lower expectations for their career advancement.

If companies truly want to promote a culture that empowers female employees, they must set the bar high enough while also managing unfair pressures. They need to give women opportunities to prove themselves as leaders through adequate promotions and assignments.

4. Limited Career Advancement Opportunities

Limited Career Advancement For Women

Speaking of opportunities and expectations, research continually indicates women are more likely to be passed up for promotions.

This is especially true between first and second-tier management positions. Once women reach a second-tier management position, many struggle to climb to higher leadership and C-suite roles. The opportunities either aren’t presented or are more often going to male candidates.

Generally, women are less likely to know about promotions and are even less likely to actually land the positions. A 2021 study from Yale found women are 14% less likely to be promoted at their companies every year and are consistently judged as having “lower leadership potential” than their male counterparts.

The best way to promote career advancement for women is to ensure equal access to promotions and new leadership positions. Mentorship programs and professional development strategies are also helpful when it comes to expanding opportunities and growing professional networks. We’ll touch on that more a little later.

5. Sexual or Gender-Based Harassment

Sexual Harassment In Women Employees And Leaders

Unfortunately, this is still a significant problem. Movements like “#MeToo” and new anti-harassment laws have certainly helped, but we’re a long way from totally harassment-free workplaces.

Even women in positions of power still contend with sexual and gender-based harassment. In fact, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that sexual harassment is more prevalent for women supervisors than for other women employees in the United States, Japan, and Sweden.

As more women advance to management and leadership positions, they also face the risk of:

  • Sexual hostility
  • Unwelcome physical actions
  • Offensive remarks or innuendos
  • Unwanted sexual attention

It’s estimated that up to 85% of all female employees have experienced sexual harassment in their job at least once, and that number is likely higher for women in management and supervisor positions.

Many women are forced to quit jobs, change industries, or reduce their work hours to deal with the harassment. Such actions further slow their career advancement and potentially force them to miss crucial opportunities.

Fortunately, many companies are choosing to (or being forced to) implement better anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for their employees. If we, as a society, want to combat the challenges women face in the workplace, we must place a strong emphasis on battling harassment.

6. Lack of Sponsorship and Mentors

Lack Of Sponsorship And Mentors

To get to the top of the corporate ladder, people need sponsors that can demand opportunities and support leadership development. There are many barriers between entry-level positions and C-suite opportunities, but sponsorship can help employees break through them.

Many male executives have mentors providing such support, but research from the Harvard Business Review indicates women are less likely to obtain sponsorship. Female employees are not as likely to organically meet sponsors, and they often don’t know what steps to take to seek the full sponsorship they need.

What women can do is seek out strong leadership mentors and coaches. A mentor can be a powerful source of knowledge, help set critical goals, and keep female employees accountable for their own advancement.

At Strategy People Culture, our leadership coaches work with female leaders to help them understand their opportunities and grow their careers. We understand the hardships women face in corporate environments, and we’re happy to provide customized guidance and mentorship to leaders of all kinds.

7. Becoming C-Suite Members

Female Challenges As A C-Suite Member

In the United States, there’s a record number of Fortune 500 Women in C-Level positions. However, for every company run by a woman, there are nearly 13 run by a man. The bottom line is those female leaders face many barriers to becoming full-fledged C-suite members, not just managers and supervisors.

A 2019 study by Working Mother and the National Association for Executives found that:

  • When contending for C-suite positions, nearly half of the male candidates received detailed information and coaching for the spots – and only 15% of women received the same.
  • Almost all of the surveyed women (77%) said a top barrier to gender equity was a lack of information on how to advance in their careers.
  • Men are three times as likely to have been considered for profit-and-loss roles and twice as likely to have received a promotion within the last 24 months.

If businesses are going to encourage female leadership, they must provide women with access to C-suite level positions – as well as the necessary resources and support to obtain them.

One beneficial step any business can take is to perform a workplace culture audit. Determine how current employees (including the women) feel about their opportunities for advancement. Learn how executives feel about their positions and their ability to grow as leaders.

Many companies are unaware of the inequities and challenges women face in their workplace. The only real way to find out is to assess your workplace culture, then find ways to effectuate cultural changes and give female leaders the resources they need.

How Can SPC Help With These Challenges?

Martin Luther King Jr Speech

It’s 2022 – and Dr. King’s inspirational words and values from 60 years ago are as prevalent as ever. No company should be at a standstill when it comes to gender equity and anti-discrimination efforts. We’re in a period of rapid evolution, and leaders of all genders and statuses should have the chance to ride the wave.

Our team at Strategy People Culture wants to help companies facilitate change and battle biases, discrimination, and inequity. At the same time, we’re also here to help coach and guide every kind of leader on their way up the corporate ladder.

To learn more about our executive coaching services, or to schedule anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training, reach out online. You can also give us a call at 833-ROCK-SPC.

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Andy Botwin

Andrew (or Andy) founded Strategy People Culture, LLC in 2012 with a passion for working with the interconnectivity between people and business and the fundamental beliefs in the symbiotic relationship between the advancement and success of both people and business.