Barriers and Biases That Hold Women Back: What Are They and What Can We Do About Them?

Despite all the effort and attention dedicated to it, women’s representation in Fortune 500 leadership positions has stagnated in recent years. The percentage of women holding executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies grew from 13.5% in 2009 to just 14.6% in 2013.(1) Women CEOs lead only 4% of the companies on the 2013 Fortune 500 list. In the September 2013 Harvard Business Review, Merck & Company Inc. CEO, Kenneth Frazier is quoted as saying, “I think that the progress of women in the last two decades has been so limited, so slow, so inadequate, that it would defy even the most skeptical people from 20 years ago.” (2) So what is holding women back? There isn’t a simple answer and the efforts that have been underway for the last 20 years haven’t produced the expected results. There is growing awareness of subtle and often invisible barriers for women that are being identified as second-generation gender bias. These biases create a context that inadvertently benefits men and puts women at a disadvantage so they fail to reach their full potential, perpetuating the stereotypes that are often used to explain the disparities between men and women in achieving key metrics of workplace success.

Regardless of the nature and severity of the external barriers and biases women face in the workplace, there is another challenge that comes from within. In The Confidence Gap, an article just published in The Atlantic Monthly, broadcast journalists and authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman share research findings on women’s lack of self-confidence and the impact it has on their success. Women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, predict poorer performance on tests, and tend to underestimate their abilities compared to men. This lack of self-confidence has a profound impact on future success because, as the authors point out in The Confidence Gap, “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels.”

With both internal and external barriers to address, women have their hands full and may be challenged to determine what will help them to achieve the results they seek.

Please join us on May 16th to share your experiences and join in discussing what can be done to overcome the barriers and biases women face in their pursuit of professional achievement and success.

1 Catalyst. Quick Take: Statistical Overview of Women in the Workplace. New York: Catalyst, March 3, 2014.
2 Boris Groysberg and Katherine Connolly, “Great Leaders Who Make the Mix Work”, Harvard Business Review volume 91, number 9 (2013):71



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