Gender barriers to leadership

I was chatting with someone in my network the other day who is at a director level. We were talking about the barriers that women face in their leadership journey. Still, in 2021 male leaders are still the majority - by a long way. Whilst over the last 30 years or so there is more gender balance in middle management, there is still work to be done at the executive level (and above).

Before I go on, I think it’s really important to note that this is part of gender equity, where we look beyond the cisgender binary and support transgender folks as well, who face additional barriers to employment and advancement. 

Women in leadership statistics

In January 2021 the Hampton-Alexander Review published its final report and noted that there were 1,026 women on FTSE 350 boards (around 34%), an increase of 344 since the review was launched in 2016. In addition, the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 met the target of 33% female representation.

It also noted that there are no longer any all-male boards across the top 350 listed companies, but there were still 16 ‘one and done’ boards that have a single female board member. In other good news, the report found an increase in the number of women in a wider senior leadership role. 

However, women still only make up 14% of executive directors in the FTSE 100 and the report said that more progress was needed to improve representation in the highest executive roles. It is wildly recognised that women still face barriers to senior roles. 

 4 gender barriers to leadership

There are four types of barriers: structural, cultural, individual mindsets and lifestyle choices: 

  • Structural barriers include lack of access to important informal networks e.g. the golf course, sporting events and informal drinks after work. There is an assumption that women don’t want to take part in these types of events so they are not invited. 
  • Cultural barriers include gender bias and stereotyping. There can be role incongruity - where someone holds beliefs or stereotypes about a group that is inconsistent with the behaviour thought to be necessary to succeed in a particular role. These beliefs make it more difficult for people to succeed if their behaviours are not perceived to be congruent with their gender e.g. stereotypical male traits such as aggression, assertiveness, competitiveness etc. create a conflict for women because they are expected to act like a leader (‘male’ traits) and a woman (‘female traits’). Thus to be accepted as leaders, women must walk a fine line between two opposing sets of expectations. 
  • Individual mindsets are thoughts and behaviours that women might have which hold them back. Perhaps they make it to director level but believe they cannot go further or they self-select out of the workforce. The majority of women don’t pursue C-Level positions (or higher) for many reasons including lack of confidence, valuing work-life balance or a desire to avoid politics. It is important to note that women often have a different value set and so face different barriers. 
  • Lifestyle choices include work-life balance, family choices and breadwinner/caregiver priorities. These are not negative choices but are considered barriers as they contribute to the leadership gender gap. It’s important to note that if a woman is the primary breadwinner she’s usually the primary caregiver as well. However, if the man is the primary breadwinner, he is rarely the primary caregiver - this is important for families when they discuss career aspirations and balance at home. 


Solutions to gender barriers to leadership

If the pandemic showed us anything about gender barriers it is that women can and must build alternative systems with or without leadership involvement. I heard many a tale of how women were thriving as leaders during the pandemic due to their more feminine traits of empathy, tolerance, vulnerability and intuition. We were unable to do things in the way we have always done and it opened up an opportunity for women to thrive in the workplace (and/or working from home). 

As women, we all experience one or more of the barriers mentioned above. Sometimes they are overt, other times they are concealed behind a different agenda. I see concealed barriers a lot as women return to work after having kids, with assumptions made about what they will and won’t want to do. 

So what helps? 

  • Mentoring (and coaching) can help guide and advise someone to grow in their current career. Sponsorship is less common as a formal method in the UK but having a male sponsor can also help to advocate for you to move to your next role. 


  • Communication is the most useful tool to proactively break down bias - both conscious and unconscious and the assumptions that go with them where there are cultural barriers.


  • One of the things that I think helps with the barrier to mindsets is the roles we, as women volunteer for. Commonly referred to as the office homework e.g. making the coffee, taking notes, helping new people, planning social events. Although these activities help a company run smoothly, they are time-consuming and are often not recognised. You don’t need to volunteer every time, let other employees contribute, and assign tasks if possible to ensure a balance. 


  • Work-life balance is valued more now than ever before, by everyone. Again, the pandemic showed that we can work more flexibly and many employers are embracing this. Those who aren’t are finding staff leaving in ‘The Great Resignation’. 

We need to work together to be aware of these barriers and to reduce them. They are the underlying cause of the leadership gender gap and have a huge impact on diversity and inclusion. 

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