5 Strategies for Overcoming Barriers for Women in Leadership

A group of diverse women seated and talking at a conference table.

Supporting women in leadership begins with key decisions that support career success for early-stage employees and put on the management track. From there, organizations can make important investments in areas such as coaching, support infrastructure and tools and talent to help identify and eliminate bias.

Women in leadership represent a crucial gap in today's succession planning and hiring pipelines. Research from Deloitte has found that less than 25% of women in middle management and non-managerial roles plan to stay at their employer for more than two years. Among those who had recently left their employer, the lack of advancement opportunities was the top reason cited for their career changes.

Organizations that are working to cultivate a diverse talent pipeline and retain women in leadership roles must understand what's driving this compulsion to leave and what solutions can better connect top female talent with management roles.

ADP's Women@Work 2023 panel titled "Understanding Leadership Barriers" tackled this topic. To find sustainable solutions, we must understand today's most challenging barriers to women in leading roles. Here's a closer look at the session's key takeaways and how they can help organizations meet their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) objectives with authenticity.

Getting to the root of the problem

A common misconception is that glass ceilings are all that are holding women back. However, the issue begins much earlier, says Archana Gilravi, Senior Vice President of Strategy, Programs and Partnerships at the Sandberg Goldberg Bernthal Family Foundation.

Rather than a glass ceiling, it's a "broken rung," she explains, based on research conducted by Lean In and McKinsey & Company in their annual Women in the Workplace study.

"For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 87 women and 82 women of color are promoted," Gilravi says. The result is that men hold about 60% of management positions, which further narrows the pipeline for executive development and promotion as talent moves through senior levels.

A number of systemic inequities must be addressed, observes Sree Ratnasinghe, Director of Customer Solutions, North America for Amazon Web Services. One is a confidence gap that girls experience during the tween and teen years that steers them away from educational and career choices in science and technology. Another is that women often bear family and household responsibilities at a disproportionate level, which leads to burnout and other frustrations when organizational policies fail to recognize and support that.

The panel had several innovative approaches for organizations to address these root causes.

1. Develop your talent pipeline to support dimension

One step that organizations can take is to stop hiring based on pedigree, says Patricia A. Lee, President and Founder of P.A.L. Coaching and Consulting LLC. It often results in non-diverse teams with similar schooling, experience and expertise.

Instead, advises Lee, "think about hiring for an additive benefit to your team."

Managers can start by asking what skills and perspectives they don't have on their team and seeking out individuals who bring those qualities to the table. Broader recruiting fosters diverse teams with greater creativity, productivity and innovation and gives a wider group of people access to opportunities. In turn, this will generate greater momentum for the organization's DEI objectives.

2. Broaden your DEI metrics

Addressing the broken rung issue begins with awareness, Gilravi says. One important way to do this is to set broader DEI success metrics that touch all levels of the organization. She notes, for example, that just 13% of companies set metrics for women of color.

By taking a broader stance and capturing metrics in areas such as women's representation, promotional goals and hiring across all levels — as well as factoring in intersectionality — you can make meaningful changes early in the management pipeline. This practical action can lead directly to getting more women into leadership.

3. Leverage neutral bias monitors

Organizations have made important inroads in providing bias training and reminding evaluators about bias before hiring and promotional processes start. But another strategy Gilravi recommends is using a neutral bias monitor. This is a person whose job is to sit in and observe conversations, identify where bias may occur and steer the conversation back on track by refocusing on the goals or metrics that should be driving the interaction.

Technology can also support this, noted ADP's Chief of Product Inclusion Giselle Mota. Mota highlighted that AI-driven tools can review written communications and suggest more gender-inclusive language or even listen to conversations and provide constructive feedback suggestions on how to improve leadership styles.

4. Create affinity groups with executive feedback

Ratnasinghe says that women account for 44% of Amazon's global workforce and that they lead some of the organization's most critical business initiatives. One strategy she recommends to support women in leadership is creating global affinity groups focused on women, such as women in engineering, with active executive sponsorship.

The groups are charged with empowering women, supporting networking and elevating ideas to improve inclusivity. Mota observes that by encouraging executive-level participation, it's more likely the ideas that come out of affinity groups will be used to inspire policy and program changes that effectively support inclusion across the whole organization.

5. Support leaders with coaching

Mentorship, sponsorship and networking are all key ways to support women in leadership, but an increasingly crucial piece of the toolkit is coaching.

"Mentors talk to you about their experience and give advice," Lee explains. "A coach makes it real and challenges you to bring about the best results based on your thoughts and goals."

Individual coaching support can help women in leadership shine within organizations while also advancing them on their own paths. Gilravi concurs, noting that having a coach has been helpful to her career trajectory by evaluating feedback, providing perspective and giving her an outside lens for her experiences.

Taking the next steps to overcome barriers

Strides have been made in advancing women to top roles, yet significant roadblocks remain. By taking thoughtful, intentional and innovative steps, it's possible to create environments that support women's success and help top talent envision themselves growing in leadership roles with your organization for years to come.

To learn more and advance the conversation, watch the "Understanding Leadership Barriers" session from the Women@Work 2023 summit, available now on-demand.