The Uphill Climb: Persistent barriers for women in leadership

In the current month, I had the privilege of serving on the jury panel for the Quality Circle Forum of India (QCFI). During my involvement, I couldn't help but notice a stark reality: the representation of women within the Governing Council (GC) was limited, with only one female member. This observation extends beyond a single industry; it appears to be an enduring trend across various sectors.

Recent data from the World Economic Forum reveals a consistent upward trend in women's representation in leadership positions over the past two decades. Nevertheless, progress remains modest. 

In 2023, the global average for women in leadership roles stands at 33.7%, marking only a marginal increase from 33.4% in 2022, encompassing both the public and private sectors. 

However, a closer examination of high-frequency data presented in the report highlights a concerning development: the hiring rates of women into leadership roles across various industries have been steadily declining since mid-2022 (1).

Barriers to Progress

Gender Bias: From my personal experience, I am of the opinion that gender bias, a deeply ingrained obstacle, remains a significant barrier on the journey to the boardroom. Stereotypes and preconceived notions about women's abilities and leadership styles persist, often leading to biases in hiring and promotion decisions. These biases can make it difficult for women to secure top leadership positions, despite their qualifications, experience, and delivery.

Networking and Opportunities: We have witnessed that historically, women have been side-lined in the corporate world, including these network opportunities. Many boardroom positions are filled through informal networks and connections. Building these connections can be especially challenging for women in male-dominated environments.

Lack of Representation: Aspiring women find it challenging to find mentors and role models who can guide and support their career growth. This lack of representation can also hinder women's advancement.

Workplace Culture: A toxic or unsupportive workplace culture can deter women from pursuing leadership roles. Discrimination, harassment, and lack of inclusion can discourage women from seeking upper-level positions.

Work-Life Balance: Balancing leadership roles with family responsibilities poses a unique challenge for women. The expectation that women should take on a disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities limits their ability to assume high-pressure leadership positions. Unfortunately, judegments often persist, especially after maternity breaks.

Overcoming the Barriers

After understanding the barriers, let us collectively come together and see how we can address these issues and climb uphill.

Raise Awareness: Companies must acknowledge the existence of gender bias and its impact on career progression. Raising awareness through training and education programmes can shift perceptions and behaviours.

Mentorship and Sponsorship: Organisations should actively promote mentorship and sponsorship programmes to connect aspiring female leaders with experienced mentors who can help guide their careers and advocate for their advancement.

Diverse Hiring Practices: Companies should prioritise diversity in hiring, ensuring that their recruitment processes are free from biases. Establishing clear diversity goals and holding hiring managers accountable can drive change.

Inclusive Workplace Culture: Fostering an inclusive and respectful workplace culture is paramount. Companies should have zero tolerance for discrimination and harassment while actively promoting diversity and inclusion.

Flexible Work Policies: Implementing flexible work policies that support work-life balance can benefit all employees and make leadership positions more accessible to women.

Addressing gender bias, offering mentorship, and fostering inclusive workplaces are key steps towards ensuring equal leadership opportunities for women.

In summary, the data underscores the ongoing obstacles women encounter in reaching leadership positions. To break these barriers, collective action is needed from organisations and society.  Empowering women isn't just a goal; it's a means to unlock the full potential of our organisations and society.

Neelima Somashekar is an IMC professional with PRHUB 

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