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Top 10 Female Leader Challenges and Barriers | The Growth Faculty

Unique challenges and barriers female leaders face in leadership positions

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Achieving gender diversity in leadership remains a complex journey in 2024, marked by persistent barriers that hinder women's progression to executive roles. 

Female leaders work in an envrionment with multifaceted challenges, encompassing deep-seated gender biases, maternal wall biases, and the pervasive influence of the glass ceiling. The interplay of unconscious biases, tokenism, and cultural and sectoral disparities further contributes to the complexity. 

Ahead of our International Women's Day 2024 free live virtual event with humanitarian lawyer and hostage survivor Rabia Siddique, let's set out some of these challenges for women leaders, and how organisations can overcome them.

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1. Unconscious Bias - Gender and Maternal Wall Bias

Gender biases in performance evaluations can affect how women's contributions are seen, impacting their role as executives. Women who become mothers may face biases related to their perceived commitment to work.

The assumption that motherhood will compromise professional dedication can hinder career progression. Organisations should focus on awareness and fair assessment practices to create an inclusive environment that supports the advancement of women’s leadership - no matter their life stage.

2. Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is a common challenge for female leaders. It makes them doubt their abilities and fear being seen as frauds, even when they're accomplished. This self-doubt can affect confidence and hinder career progress. ​​

Overcoming imposter syndrome involves recognising and challenging these negative thoughts, seeking support from mentors and peers, and celebrating achievements. Creating a supportive workplace culture that values diverse perspectives will help women to feel more empowered and capable in leadership roles.

3. Unequal Pay 

Unequal pay, where women earn less than men for similar roles, is a pernicious barrier to career progression. This not only creates economic imbalances but also gives the impression of diminished value, making it harder for women to stay in executive roles. Addressing this issue involves rectifying salary gaps and implementing fair compensation practices, enabling women to pursue leadership roles without being hindered by historical financial disparities.

4. Glass Ceiling 

The glass ceiling is a symbolic term representing the invisible hurdles that hold back women from reaching top leadership roles. These barriers, like gender bias and a lack of mentorship and networks, limit women's career growth. Essentially, it highlights the challenge women face in breaking through to the highest levels of leadership within companies. Removing the glass ceiling involves acknowledging it exists (first and foremost), addressing discrimination, providing mentorship, and ensuring equal access to networks, allowing women to advance in their careers without these constraints

5. Lack of Access to High-Visibility Projects

Limited access to high-visibility projects can impact a person's career growth, especially for women. These projects are crucial for showcasing skills and leadership abilities on a larger scale. However, barriers such as unequal opportunities can hinder women from getting these chances. The consequences include overlooked talents and fewer opportunities for recognition.

To address this, businesses should ensure fair and inclusive practices in assigning projects, giving everyone, regardless of gender, an equal shot at career-boosting opportunities. Former CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi in her book "My Life in Full" said her bosses were terrific at treating her like everyone else in this regard. Breaking down these barriers creates a more equitable and diversified professional environment.

6. Stereotypes about Leadership Style

Stereotypes about leadership styles involve ingrained beliefs that label assertive or ambitious women as overly aggressive. This creates a dilemma where women face penalties for behaviors accepted in male leaders. The impact is significant, affecting not only individual careers but also perpetuating gender-based expectations at work. 

Women may feel pressured to alter their natural leadership styles to fit societal norms. To address this, it's essential to challenge and break down these biases. Fostering an inclusive culture that values multiple leadership styles, regardless of gender, is essential. By doing so, organisations can create a fairer environment, allowing individuals to lead authentically and contribute fully.

7. Negotiation Challenges

Negotiation challenges encompass difficulties that women may face when negotiating, whether it involves salary discussions or advocating for resources and promotions. Research indicates that these challenges can impact women's ability to secure opportunities for career advancement. The struggle in negotiations may stem from various factors, including societal expectations and ingrained biases.

 Addressing these challenges requires training in negotiation and communication, ensuring equitable and transparent negotiation practices, and emphasising fairness in negotiations - essential for cultivating a workplace that values and rewards the differing talents and contributions of all individuals, irrespective of gender.

young female employee

8. Tokenism 

Tokenism occurs when women are appointed to leadership roles mainly to fulfill diversity requirements, that lack a genuine commitment to inclusion. In such cases, women leaders may feel isolated and their credibility as leaders undermined, as their presence may be seen as symbolic rather than based on merit. 

To address tokenism, companies need to foster a culture that genuinely values different talents and perspectives. This involves recognizing individuals for their skills and contributions and creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels authentically appreciated. Breaking away from tokenistic practices is essential for building diverse and effective leadership teams.

9. Industry and Sectoral Disparities 

Industry and sectoral disparities refer to the significant gender imbalances in specific fields, creating obstacles for successful female entrepreneurs. In male-dominated industries, entrenched cultures resistant to change make it challenging for women to break through. This issue goes beyond individual biases, involving business structures and cultural norms that sustain gender inequality. 

Addressing these barriers requires efforts to challenge and transform established norms, fostering inclusive cultures, and promoting equal opportunities for professional growth. By breaking down these industry-specific disparities, companies can create a more equitable and diversified leadership landscape, where talent is recognized regardless of gender.

10. Cultural and Societal Expectations

Cultural and societal expectations significantly influence women's experiences in leadership. Across different cultures, varying norms about women's roles can pose extra challenges for those aspiring to senior leadership. In some places, traditional gender expectations make it tougher for females to pursue women CEO roles. This impact goes beyond personal views, affecting both work dynamics and personal choices. 

Overcoming these expectations requires cultural shifts that value diversity and equality. Organisations can contribute by promoting inclusive policies and actively supporting women's progress in leadership. Embracing a more inclusive approach to cultural expectations is important for creating environments where women can thrive in leadership roles, free from restrictive gender norms.

Being aware of the key challenges senior women executives face in reaching or maintaining top leadership roles is important in addressing how inclusive cultures, breaking down old norms and gender-biased obstacles play a role in supporting women's progress. 

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Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Photo by Charanjeet Dhiman on Unsplash


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