Do Women Still Have Added Leadership Challenges?

Organizations need to help women overcome the barriers to leadership that lie within them while also acknowledging and addressing the barriers that are not of their own making.

A woman is currently vice president of our country, and women increasingly are landing executive positions in states and cities, not to mention the high-profile women in corporate America. When I remember how my mother, a healthcare executive, was one of the only mothers among my friends’ mothers to have a job—and the only executive among them—the progress of women in leadership is impressive.

But there’s a catch. In my own life, and that of women I know, there are still perception challenges women face to becoming leaders of even small departments and business units. An article by Susan MacKenty Brady on Linkage, “Mastering Your Inner Critic,” is enlightening. It lists eight hurdles to leadership women continue to face. Some, like mastering your inner critic or your own insecurities, are challenges that come from within, while others, like “proving your value,” seem to be partly within a woman’s control and partly a function of the bias of others.

“Evidence suggests that women lack self-confidence. The challenge that confidence experts point to is the external and extrinsic ways women can build up the confidence needed to lead. Women need to believe in their worthiness—and to learn how to stop the harsh thinking about themselves and others,” MacKenty Brady writes.

To me that means doing what more men than women have done for eons: Succinctly and quickly replying, “I will get the job done,” when a prospective employer, or a boss considering the woman for promotion, asks whether she is qualified and likely to succeed. I used to be so insecure that, rather than leading the conversation with my strengths, I would first apologize for my weaknesses. It was as if I felt it was a legal requirement for me to disclose anything and everything that could possibly be wrong with me in advance. I thought I would gain points for honesty and sincerity. Spoiler alert, I didn’t!

I no longer feel uncomfortable talking myself up, focusing the conversation on my strengths. I don’t feel compelled to give managers and prospective employees a heads-up about what could possibly go wrong if they give me a position. But there’s still one problem: Now that I have come much closer to mastering the art of self-promotion and confidence, I am running into the biases of others.

In my career, I have experienced getting a promotion, and having the man who was originally intended to have my position, but instead was hired for a different, but, coequal, position, continue to angle to become my boss. I remember a conversation in which he tried to convince me I missed having a person working above me at the publication I led. I quickly told him I did not. He then said that even though I did not miss the man who retired, who once worked above me, I might appreciate having a manager with a different personality from my old boss working above me. I told him I did not. “I don’t want anyone working above me on my publication,” I told him. “What I need is a junior employee working under me.” He was astounded and slightly offended. I would say it was funny, but you probably can understand how it was also angering and frustrating.

I wanted to say to him: “Really? Are you still struggling to accept me as a coequal colleague, whom you can be friends with without trying to dominate and push into an inferior position?” I recall that the next day after having that conversation, he introduced me to a business contact as his “associate.” Why not as “my colleague”?

It’s easy, and somewhat accurate, to say there are not more women in leadership positions because we are self-defeating. We’re not confident enough, not aggressive enough, and not proactive enough about pushing ourselves forward and “selling ourselves.” The other, equally important part of that story is the continuing biases that make proving our value and ability to stand on our own as leaders much more difficult than it is for men.

How does your company help women overcome the barriers to leadership that lie within them while acknowledging and addressing the barriers that are not of their own making?