Women in Leadership: What’s stopping them?

Judith Spring

There is a temptation to simplify the challenges of gender balance in leadership roles to simply a denial of promotion. But it is much more complex than that. Executive Coach,  Mentor and member of Kingstown College Faculty Judith Spring discusses the organisational benefits of women in leadership roles, the reasons why women may not seek promotion and why they may fail to be promoted.

Women make up more than 50% of all global purchases. Having women represented at all levels allows organisations to better serve this customer base and leads to increased market share. Diversity broadens perspectives and allows for new and innovative ideas to flourish. Recruiting from a more diverse pool of candidates increases the chances of finding great talent. Offering opportunities for growth within an organisation increases the retention rate.

Yet despite this understanding, women are still significantly underrepresented in senior leadership positions.

As of May 2018, only 24 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are female — or just under 5% of the total list. In fact, there are more CEOs of Fortune 500 organisations called James than there are women CEOs. Ireland’s 30% Club’s 2017 study of 86 organisations across the private, PLC and public sector shows the percentage of women holding CEO positions stands at 19%, a slight increase from 17% in 2016 and 14% in 2015.  Compare this with Manager Level 2 (in general 3 levels down from CEO); 52% are women, so the drop-off to senior leadership is significant.

So what is the problem? Nature or nurture? Are women genetically hardwired not to seek out positions of power and influence or are there cultural and systemic barriers impeding their progress? The answer is not so simple; it is a complex multi-faceted issue, with many contributing interlinked-factors; the most commonly cited being:

  • Unconscious bias
  • Lack of work-life balance
  • Lack of female role-models
  • Lack of qualified in-coming talent
  • Women’s confidence and aspirations

Unconscious Bias

We all have biases, based on our background, our culture and our personal experiences, that impact our decisions. Leadership teams dominated by men will have a strong tendency to look for ‘people like them’ to add to their teams; unconsciously ignoring those that look or act differently.

Unconscious bias also drives the stereotyping and perceptions around what a leader should be. If you search images of “CEO” you will be confronted with pictures of a Type A, tall white male.  In an experiment at Columbia university, students were presented with a case study of a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Heidi Rozein. However, half the students were presented the study with the name of the protagonist changed to Howard. While the students rated “Howard” and “Heidi” equally competent, they liked Howard, but not Heidi. Students said they found Heidi less humble and more power hungry and self-promoting than Howard. In addition, the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her. Because leaders have traditionally been male, leadership is associated with masculine traits (assertive, authoritative, task-based) versus feminine traits (relationship-orientated, democratic, risk averse). This poses the double-bind for women; showing strong leadership without being penalised for it. Women also need to understand that leaders don’t need to be liked, just respected.

Lack of work-life balance

Women are generally carrying the larger responsibility for family obligations – from child-rearing to caring for the elderly family members.  Women are equally ambitious as men but are often less willing to pay the ‘cost of ambition’. Indra Nooyi, who recently stepped down after 12 years as CEO of Pepsico, commented; “I have to remind myself of what I lost,” referring to difficulties of running a Fortune 500 company while parenting two children. While she says she doesn’t regret her decisions, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t suffered “heartaches” and would counsel her younger self to be “careful of your choices.”

In her controversial article for The Atlantic ‘Why women Can’t Have it All’, Anne-Marie Slaughter shared her thoughts on how a generation of women, mainly those who graduated in the 70s and 80s, have been using the mantra that ‘you can have it all’. However, a younger generation is saying that working 24/7 and having their children raised by a nanny may not be a road they wish to pursue. Some women have no choice but to work. However, when faced with the choice of stepping up to a role that demands high levels of time and emotional commitment, women may choose not to. Importantly, they should not be judged for their choice. While there is no universal panacea for work-life balance, Slaughter advocates for changes in social policies, adapting career paths to accommodate choices and leveraging technology to allow for more innovative working solutions.

Lack of female role-models

Many people seek role models to help guide them in their career. Women often cannot find visible female role models and therefore find it difficult to envisage moving to more senior roles. This was put succinctly by the American activist Marian Wright Edelman; ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. In seeking a mentor, employees benefit from one who can help them navigate the organisational landscape. Women who have already advanced in an organisation are well situated to help others. If there are none, or only a few, then it becomes difficult for those less-experienced to find suitable mentors.

In KPMG “Women’s Leadership Study” of more than 3,000 professional and college women, “Nine in 10 working women believe that their own perseverance will accelerate their journey to leadership, but they also overwhelmingly agree that female colleagues, role models and professional networks play a critical role in advancing women’s leadership”. Two-thirds (67%) of women said they have learned the most important lessons about leadership from other women.

Lack of qualified in-coming talent

In Ireland in 2016, 34% of third level graduates graduated in the fields of Engineering and IT. With high demand for these graduates, this represents a lot of job opportunities. However, less than 20% of the cohort was female. This low entry rate for females in STEM careers means there will be low levels of representation in organisations that are dominated by these skills; the very skills that will shape our future and drive the industries of tomorrow. This low uptake is not a reflection of the women’s competency. A recent paper “The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education” (STEM) delivers findings that the more gender equality a country has (for example Sweden, Norway, Ireland), the less likely women are to choose maths and science professions. Conversely, countries with the most female college graduates in STEM subjects were among the least gender equal countries (e.g. Algeria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates).

The authors of the study note that countries with the highest gender equality tend to be welfare states with less economic pressure on women. When students have the opportunity to choose their courses for university, they will be encouraged to choose courses that suit their strengths and enjoyment. They have the freedom to choose, even when what they choose is less secure or not so well paid. Women are more likely than men to follow ‘caring’ careers; careers that are not well paid and have little opportunity for career advancement.

In Ireland in 2016, 76% of Health and Welfare and 71% of education graduates were women. While there is a challenge to make STEM more appealing to girls when they are making career choices, who will do the poorer paid caring professions? Maybe the energy should be put into getting men into these jobs – for sure the pay will then increase!  While it is encouraging that families are advising children to do what makes them happy, educators need to supplement this “happy” advice with more specifics regarding the reality of the work world.

Women’s confidence and aspirations

In an interview by Fortune with 57 current and former female CEOs of their Fortune 1000 companies, 65% said they’d never thought about being a CEO until some else told them they had the potential. Only 5 said they’d always wanted to be CEO. In the KPMG report cited earlier, more than half of the women agree that, “as women,” they are more cautious in taking steps toward leadership roles, and six in 10 find it hard to see themselves as a leader”.

As early as 1978, “The Imposter Syndrome” was introduced showing professional women often believe they don’t deserve their position and that they will be shown up as incompetent at any moment. Research (Age and Gender Differences in Self Esteem) found that there is a gender gap in self-confidence; men can overestimate their abilities whilst women tend to underestimate theirs. Men doubt themselves too, but are less likely to let their doubts hold them back. At Hewlett Packard, an internal report showed that men apply for a promotion or job when they only meet 60% of the qualifications while women only apply if they meet 100%. This lack of confidence is holding women back; not their ability to do the job.

From all of the above, it is clear that it is a complex issue with so many interrelated factors. McKinsey provides a road map to help organisations improve gender equality:

  • Make the case for diversity by showing true commitment through actions not words and through open and honest dialogue.
  • Invest in more training; in particular unconscious bias training. When employees understand how bias can impact their judgement, they are empowered to make fairer and more objective decisions.
  • Give managers the means to drive change by showing how they can support women through coaching, mentoring, stretch assignments etc
  • Ensure that hiring, promotions and reviews are fair
  • Give employees the flexibility to fit work into their lives, leveraging technology to allow for more innovation working solutions
  • Focus on accountability and results by placing more emphasis on targets, tracking and transparency.

For coaches and mentors who are partnering with high-potential women looking to step up, there are many strategies to be explored; challenge self-limiting beliefs, boast more, don’t wait to be perfect, ask for what you want etc. But if we want to see a better gender-balance in leadership then it isn’t all about ‘fixing’ women. There needs to be changes in social policy, organisation practices and most importantly, a change in perspective of leadership and leadership theories which are currently male-normed/male-defined concepts.


  • McKinsey and Company (2015). Diversity Matters
  • 30% Club Ireland (2017). Women in Management – the Leadership Pipeline 2017
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter (2012). Why Women Still Can’t Have it All The Atlantic (2012)
  • KPMG (2016)  Women in Leadership Study
  • Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary (2018) The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Psychological Science
  • Weibke Bleidorn et al (2016) Age and Gender Differences in Self Esteem University of Texas at Austin and University of Melbourne
  • McKinsey and Company (2017). Women in the WorkplaceCentral Statistics Office Ireland: Third Level Graduates by Field of Study 2016

Judith Spring

Executive Coach, Mentor and member of Kingstown College Faculty

Judith has worked across Europe and Australia for organisations including Shell International, Viterra and Kelloggs. During her career, she has been a coach and mentor, particularly helping emerging women leaders to be more confident and more impactful. A vision to see more women having the choice to progress their careers has been the driver for her becoming a full-time coach, focusing on high potential women, to accelerate their growth and development for their own benefit and for the benefit of the organisations they work in. Judith gained her engineering degree from Trinity College, Dublin. She is a graduate of the Governor’s Leadership Foundation Program of South Australia and holds an Advanced Diploma in Personal, Leadership and Executive Coaching from Kingstown College.