Career women face barriers to become recognized leaders.


Despite efforts to achieve equity in the workplace, career 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 career women overcome them? By leveraging their strengths and tapping into the right resources, career women can tenaciously push ahead and build equitable work environments where they thrive. 

Yet, there are a number of measures and approaches that women and companies can follow to boost the gender diversity of their leadership teams, says the new research from Spencer Stuart in its “Women Leaders: How We Got Here” report.

Career champions and support

Sponsorship, particularly by senior male leaders, proved to be the most important external factor boosting women’s career advancement. "Seventy-nine percent of respondents ranked male sponsors and champions as one of the top three sources of valuable career help they received, with 28 percent saying it was the most important," said Spencer Stuart.


Photo Courtesy of  Ivan Samkov

Sponsorship fuels career advancement in a variety of ways. “Research has found that sponsors, more than mentors, provide advice for getting and succeeding in new roles, and also use their influence and connections to open doors and help the people they sponsor reach new roles,” said the report.

“Sponsors tend to give women the confidence to take risks they might hesitate to otherwise — for example, to take a role sooner than they might feel ready, or to push out of their comfort zone to pursue a P&L role. The visible support sponsors provide also can play a role in controlling for unconscious bias and expanding women’s network of relationships.”

Studies also find, however, that men are more likely than women to have this sort of sponsorship. Men tend to be sponsored by more senior-level leaders with the organizational clout to advance their careers, while women tend to have more mentoring-like relationships focused on providing support and guidance, leading to lateral moves rather than promotions.

Overcoming unconscious bias and assumptions

Photo Courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon


Avoiding making assumptions about women’s aspirations and interests and setting the expectation that leaders will reach out to people with diverse backgrounds can help overcome these challenges. “Even the simple step of making leaders aware of these kinds of biases and assumptions — making the unconscious conscious — can make a meaningful difference,” said Spencer Stuart.

“Leaders should be encouraged to look beyond the people who are raising their hands and proactively reach out to qualified people with diverse backgrounds and encourage them to apply.”

Relationship-building and risk-taking

Photo Courtesy of Tirachard Kumtanom

Among the factors within their control, respondents pointed to a combination of personal drive, career planning and performance as essential to their success. Nearly all ranked ‘Consistently delivering outstanding results’ in the top three personal factors for success, with 88 percent saying it was the most important, said Spencer Stuart. Women also credit their success to innate traits such as perseverance, resilience, confidence, optimism, and adaptability.

Relationship-building is important for career advancement, regardless of gender. “Some women can be uncomfortable with what they perceive as the politics of corporate life and prefer to let their work speak for itself, assuming that hard work and doing a better job than the next person is all they need to do,” said the report.

“But, it’s important to recognize that, especially in the upper reaches of an organization, relationships and networking are critical, as senior-level leaders have to make decisions about the handful of people that they trust to run the company.”

Proactively managing your career

Photo Courtesy of Tirachard Kumtanom

Forty-eight percent of the senior-level women surveyed said they aspire to join a corporate board, and 35 percent said they would like to be CEO, said Spencer Stuart. The vast majority (88 percent) said they are confident they can achieve their career aspirations, although only 62 percent said they think it’s possible at their current company.

More than half (56 percent) of the women attributed their success in part to proactively managing their careers, said the report. “It is important to think longer term about your career aspirations and route up to avoid inadvertently closing the door to certain opportunities,” said the report.

“Many women (and men) truly prefer a specific function, such as marketing or finance, and strive for leadership roles within the functional area.”