Why Women Face Barriers to Leadership Roles

By Mary T. O’Sullivan

To be accepted as leaders, women often must walk a fine line between two opposing sets of expectations.” – Dr. Shawn Andrews (Training Industry, Summer 2016)

Feeling like no matter what you do, leadership opportunities pass you by? It’s not your imagination. Conventional wisdom says that in general, women struggle more than men do when aiming for the major leadership roles in an organization. We’ve made some strides, but professional, aspiring women are still ignored in meetings, don’t like networking with men, and always feel as if they have no time, because they haven’t figured out that delegation is good for the soul.

What happens when you are ignored or overruled in a public setting at work. Say you’re a newly promoted female executive, a Vice President and at your first executive staff meeting, a question is posed to the mostly male group about how to solve a talent retention problem. Answers come from around the room, but none are sticking with the CEO. Since you’ve had a similar challenge in your last assignment, you offer your suggestion too. Crickets. No one responds. You think they didn’t hear you, but they all keep talking anyway. You’re know your answer was sound, it was logical, it was based on firsthand was a good answer. After repeating your answer again, suddenly, you realize that no one cued into what you said, it’s as if you weren’t even there.  The only other women in the group are the CEO’s administrative assistant and the woman attending the coffee bar. No, you’re are not daydreaming you are not having a neurological episode; in that meeting, with those men gathered around the table, you are invisible. Your voice is not being heard. Your colleagues neglected to acknowledge your opinion.  They didn’t mean to be rude, they’re just oblivious.

I recall feeling invisible also, in my management career. While on a conference call with a program manager and a supplier an issue came up. Their product had a big problem. The conversation focused on the appearance of “cadmium bloom”, a dangerous carcinogenic substance on the supplier’s equipment. This equipment was important. It was the mechanism that opened the hatch on a missile silo. When workers opened the box and saw the cadmium bloom, they threw down their tools and walked off the job, afraid to be contaminated. Production of the missile silo had to be halted immediately, and the project was already behind schedule. The supplier was agitated and took no responsibility for the contaminated parts. We tossed around ideas to prevent this from happening again, and I decided to add my two cents. I had experience with other suppliers who were packaging experts, and I suggested that maybe these parts should be wrapped in a package that shielded them from the substance causing the problem. I even suggested the pine box they packaged the parts in was the cause since the box is treated with chemicals. At that point, the supplier lost his temper and screamed, “Don’t tell me how to ship parts. I’ve been in this business for 30 years!”

The male program manager said nothing, he just let it go, but I was fuming. Later, I called the program manager and announced that if that supplier ever spoke to me again like that, I did not plan to answer him politely. He agreed.  I never did have to interact with that man again.  However, you might say “what comes around, goes around”, because in this case, my opinion happened to be correct.  When the investigation into the original cause of the carcinogenic material was completed, guess what the cause was! It was the pine boxes that leached a chemical onto the parts which caused the toxic material! The solution? Ship all new parts in special shield bags that protect any material from the pine boxes.  If only that supplier hadn’t allowed sexism to seep into his judgment, he could have saved himself some trouble, and embarrassment. Instead, he took it out on the woman whom he didn’t consider his equal. No specifics are named, but there is actually a published case study about this incident, conducted by Liberty Packaging, who conducted the investigation. (Intercept Packaging Protects Against Cad Bloom, Liberty

But besides being ignored, there are other obstacles to smart, qualified, professional women moving into leadership roles. Not embracing the significance of mixing with the right people in the right setting is another barrier to ambitious, aspiring women. Men build relationships mostly through stereotypical men’s activities; golf, after work drinks, and communicating with fraternity brothers or joining male-only social and religious groups.  How do women work their way into this all male club? These events are where the deals are made, important conversations are had, and critical introductions happen. If you’re in line for a leadership role, and you never socialize with the next level of management, how are they going to know who you are or what you’re capable of? Women need to find those opportunities and power their way into them. For example, at a recent women’s conference, I noticed a lonely female golf instructor prominently displaying her learn-to-golf program for women. A testimonial on her brochure stated, “I learned to play golf, and was promoted two years early.” Despite her excellent messaging, there was not one woman at her table to find out more.

Study after study indicates that women haven’t accepted the intrinsic value of mingling with the men. (Forbes, June 2019). It’s not that we are anti-social, but our friendships are often with other women; our own assistants, peers, or direct reports. We’re not managing up socially. Sometimes it’s due to childcare, sometimes, we’re just not comfortable, and other times, we limit ourselves to others who are similar to ourselves. We don’t seem to get that building male relationships in a social setting is critical if we have the corner office in our sights. Forbes goes on to say that the discomfort women feel at networking events is one of the most harmful barriers to our upward movement. Many women feel it’s exploitative and even immoral to attend a social/networking event for the sole purpose of furthering our own careers. But isn’t that upside-down thinking? Professional women aspiring to leadership roles have strong value in the networking world. Networking to advance your career isn’t based on what you are taking away from others attending the event, networking is also about what you can give back. Believe that your unique and special training, grasp of your discipline, and your existing connections in the industry, are highly valued, and others will appreciate and be grateful if only you would share with them. 

Delegating is also a challenge for many of us women, and while we are buried at our desks all day, because we think we can “do it” better than anyone else. We want the work to be perfect. We expect ourselves to have immaculate homes and respond to every family need, regardless of whether or not someone else could do it just as well. What can delegation do for you? The number one complaint I hear from upwardly mobile women is that they never have enough time. Let’s think about time in terms of control.

Often when I’m working with a stressed-out women leader, the conversation shifts to control; we have to realize that we can only change what is under our control. So, we women have to ask ourselves what do we have direct control over? Recently, while coaching at a conference, a successful production manager came to me. She felt overwhelmed and complained that there was never enough time to get everything done. We dove into some areas of her responsibilities as contenders for elimination. I was surprised to learn that this busy executive home baked gluten-free items for her son. I asked her what alternatives she could think of instead of home baking, which took up hours of her time every week. Flabbergasted, she stuttered out an answer, “Well, then it wouldn’t taste as good”. I could not disagree, and we continued our brainstorming, only to have her reject every idea that she came up with. I heard a lot of “Yes, buts”.

It was apparent this woman did not want to relinquish any chore or duty. I surmised it was her fear of failure and her desire for control that produced her stubborn dismissal of any practical solution to her time problem. Maybe she expected me to have a magic formula or wave a magic wand to make her troubles go away. But don’t we women already have enough on our plates? There must be some things we can give up. Why can’t we articulate them and then carry them out?

Women face unique challenges in our lives and careers, and often the two worlds collide. Isn’t it enough that women get promoted less often, that there are fewer women on major boards of directors, or CEOs of major companies?  Delegating duties is one of the hallmarks of good leadership. According to (January 2018) the number one reason for delegating is to save time. Delegation can take many forms, it’s okay to let go of some low priority tasks. In fact, Harvard Business Review (October 2017) states, to be an effective leader, we have to drop the “doers’ mindset”. By saying yes to almost everything, we are spread so thin that we create frustration with our teams, who have to wait to get a slice of our precious time. We are the bottleneck; we are slowing work down. Women in particular seem to have difficultly purging the word “No” from their vocabularies. They feel guilty when they say no, and frequently, there is backlash to refusing a request. If no doesn’t easily come out of your mouth, research some other ways women have devised to eliminate overload. After all, you won’t get access to the big jobs if you’re stuck with a whole bunch of chickenshit on your plate.

There is much else to say about women’s use of language besides the inability to choke out the “N” word, “no”. Companies know that they need talented women in key areas for a whole constellation of reasons, but if we don’t adjust our way of responding, people will have a hard time taking us seriously. Think about this, how often do you apologize? How often do use self-defeating phrases like “You probably already know this” or inserting phrases that you don’t hear men using like “just”, “actually,” “sorry, but”, “I’m not sure”,  “I’m no expert”, “does that make sense?” Tara Mohr in, brings these self-deprecating words to our attention. According to Mohr, “Most women are unconsciously using these speech habits to soften our communications, to try to ensure we don’t get labeled—as women so often do—as bitchy, aggressive, or abrasive.” Because women would rather be considered “nice” and “likeable”, than be perceived as “bitchy”.

Imagine that, we don’t want to be labeled! Don’t we all know a woman who’s been called the “B” word when she speaks out, or simply speaks the truth? Hillary Clinton, a talented, brilliant woman, lived with this moniker for years. Taylor Swift was called a “bitch” due to disagreement with another celebrity and it caused a public brouhaha. Julianna Margulies, the star of “The Good Wife”, was widely criticized for refusing to a guest appearance on the spin-off, The Good Fight, because she demanded the same pay as in her starring role. Stating “…if Jon Hamm came back for a Mad Men spinoff or Kiefer Sutherland wanted to do a 24 spinoff, they would be paid.” (Deadline, April 2019).           

There are plenty of similar examples in some classic biopics. Consider two famous women with movies that tell their stories. Erin Brockovich (a female legal clerk who proved cancer causing groundwater contamination by a major energy company) and The Iron Lady (Margaret Thatcher biopic). When you see these movies, we learn that neither of these women worried about what they said or how they said it, and due to their boldness and surety of action they changed the world as we knew it in back the 1980s and 1990s. These women were not concerned about being “nice” or “likeable”; true role models for us women today.

There are so many references in the research about how we also denigrate strong women with disparaging names. “Ice Princess” and “Dragon Lady” immediately come to mind. How can women be effectual leaders with these insulting names attached? And who are the worst offenders? According to a 2014 Gallup poll, women!

We might think that with such difficult situations facing women, fighting for our seat at the table, we’d be totally behind one another. Believe it or not, that is simply not true. Cases of women bosses belittling their female direct reports persist. Behaviors such as assigning menial or administrative work, demotions, referring to them with demeaning, condescending language, and deliberately leaving them out of important meetings have all been reported as female to female negative behavior. Although study after study clearly prove that women are more uncivil to other women, the question to answer is why? Some believe the reason lies in perception: assertive women are viewed as less “warm and nurturing”, less “motherly” due to their attitude of strength and appearance of dominance. Some women view their more dominant female colleagues as “ruthless”. Either way, generally we don’t see women supporting each other or reaching out to meet the person behind the façade. Let’s drop the perfectionism and learn to accept each other as we are if we really want to grow as professionals and as people.

You won’t get heard any louder, you won’t have more time, and you won’t get paid any more for bad behavior. To grow in your role, to be a true leader, you’ll need to act civilly. Sometimes we confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness. You don’t have to be Cruella Deville to make a lasting impression.


Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, PCC, SHRM-SCP

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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