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Women in Leadership Roles Still Face Challenges

Women make up 58% of the United States workforce. Yet, men continue to hold the majority of senior-level positions in business. The number of Fortune 500 companies with female CEOs went up from 25 in 2018 to 33 in 2019, with companies like General Motors, Best Buy, Northrop Grumman, Land O'Lakes, and Bed Bath & Beyond on the list for 2019.

The uptick may be the result of changes in the composition of company boards. According to the Deloitte Missing Pieces Report: The 2018 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards, women and minorities held 34% of board seats, which was a 3% increase from 2016.

The rise in the number of women CEOs is encouraging, but the ratio of female to male CEOs remains disproportionately small. Only 6.6% of CEOs at the companies on Fortune's list are women.

What Challenges Do Female Leaders Encounter in Business?

When women face stereotyping that pegs them as indecisive or emotional, they are not taken seriously. Women can counter these stereotypes by shifting the focus to the strengths that their diverse physical, mental and emotional experiences enable them to bring to the table.

Another challenge women face is being the only female in the room, as is common in executive and technical roles. The pressure to prove their competence can be intense, and they could become the target of micro-aggressions and disrespectful remarks. When women take the opportunity to stand out and make an impression instead of blending in and conforming, they can flip the dynamic in their favor.

McKinsey & Company's Women in the Workplace report points to the "broken rung" — not the "glass ceiling" — as the biggest obstacle. The "broken rung" refers to the entry-level roles women remain stuck in because they are overlooked for managerial jobs. When women don't advance to the role of manager, they are not in the pipeline for leadership roles. Other difficulties women may face include:

  • Being interrupted or spoken over
  • Being mistaken for a lower-level employee
  • Feeling excluded
  • Having someone else take credit for their ideas
  • Having their judgment questioned

What Can Companies Do to Improve Gender Parity?

Companies can set the stage for gender equality by fostering a culture not only of fairness but also of collaboration. Moreover, opportunities for advancing to higher positions should be available to everyone. Additional key practices are:

  • Accountability
  • Gender inclusion
  • Impartial hiring and promoting
  • No tolerance for gender bias and sexual harassment
  • Sponsorship
  • Supportive management

With more women sitting on boards and becoming CEOs, the dynamic is changing, with avenues opening up for qualified women to ascend the career ladder. Companies can help by setting policies that foster an inclusive and respectful workplace. Professional development and training can also help empower women for leadership roles. By joining associations and organizations, women can network and learn how to reach their goals while overcoming the challenges they face in reaching the top.

Learn more about SOSU's online MBA program with an Emphasis in Women in Leadership.


Fortune: The Fortune 500 Has More Female CEOs Than Ever Before

United States Census Bureau: Quick Facts - United States

The Business Journals: Percentage of Women in C-Suite Roles Inching Up

Forbes: 15 Biggest Challenges Women Leaders Face and How to Overcome Them

General Assembly: 6 Challenges for Female Business Leaders

Empowering Ambitious Women: 5 Biggest Challenges Women Leaders Face and How to Overcome Them

The Balance Careers: Overcoming Challenges Facing Women in Business

Business News Daily: Facing the Gender Gap in the Workplace 3 Ways to Empower and Inspire the Next Generation of Women Leaders

Deloitte: Missing Pieces Report - The 2018 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards

Wiley Online Library: Do Women Leaders Promote Positive Change? Analyzing the Effect of Gender on Business Practices and Diversity Initiatives

McKinsey & Company: Still Looking for Room at the Top: Ten Years of Research on Women in the Workplace

CNBC: The Number of Women Running Fortune 500 Companies Is at a Record High

McKinsey & Company: Women in the Workplace 2019

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