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Guest Opinion: Women in leadership – barriers and challenges


By Harwant Khush | Research consultant, Tero International

International Women’s Day is celebrated all over the world annually on March 8. It is the time of the year when women celebrate their successes, reflect upon their roles in the decision-making procedures of the society, and ponder on how far they have gained gender parity in their professional lives.

In their reflection this year, will women feel they are well-represented in leadership roles? Multiple studies have been conducted to understand women’s roles and their representations in our society’s leadership positions. The Global Strategy Group in 2016 concluded that “women’s lack of representation at the top is strikingly at odds with Americans’ views on workplace equality. Just 34 percent say their current workplace puts a high priority on having women in leadership positions, and 1 in 4 Americans say there are no women in leadership positions at their current job.”

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) declared that 

“despite gains in every profession, women remain underrepresented at all levels of leadership. In Congress, on corporate boards, and in our nation’s colleges and universities, male leaders outnumber female leaders by considerable margins.”


Women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, yet gender discrepancies in leadership positions are appalling. Consider these numbers:

  • Women held only 6.4 percent of the CEO positions in the Fortune 500 companies and 5.2 percent of CEO positions in S&P companies in 2017.
  • This year, women hold 22 percent of the United States Senate seats and 19.3 percent of the seats in the United States House of Representatives. (women-us-congress)
  • The percentage of women holding the top job at colleges and universities stood at 30 percent in 2016, up just 4 percentage points from 2011. (American College President Study)
  • In 2017, 8.0 percent of women were governors as compared to 2.0 percent in 1975. This is an increase of 6 percent in the last 40 years. (Pew Research)
  • When compared with the 49 high-income countries, the U.S. ranks at the 33rd position when it comes to women in the national legislature. (Pew Research)

These incongruities exist even when facts show that women have outnumbered men in attaining college degrees since 1988.

  • Women earn almost 60 percent of undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees.
  • Women are also more likely to continue their education after college: 12 percent of women ages 25 to 34 in 2013 had a master’s, doctorate or professional degree, compared with 8 percent of men in the same age group.

Similar findings were highlighted in an article published by the Stanford University that stated, “Women sprint ahead of men in college completion, but they still lag in holding powerful positions.”

The question is that when there is no dearth of qualified, trained and ambitious women who are ready to lead, then what is really holding them back? What are the barriers and challenges women have to face to get to the leadership positions? 

Here are a few:

  • Women experience obvious discrimination and unfairness in the workplace including sexual harassment, hostile work environment, pay scale discriminations and budgetary constraints.
  • Gender stereotypes exist, and the concept of leadership has been strongly tied to masculinity.
  • Work-life balance of balancing work and family responsibilities are the most challenging obstacles for women seeking leadership positions.
  • Women need women role models and mentors that are other women, and there is a shortage.
  • Women often impose barriers on themselves. The Center for American Progress specifies that some of the barriers are imposed by society while others are self-imposed.

So how do we make progress in overcoming these barriers?

  • Setting a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is a must for the future leaders. Women should be encouraged to take STEM courses beginning in their elementary school years, and given incentives to follow up these courses in colleges and universities.

  • Acquiring degrees such as an MBA; attending seminars and workshops; doing volunteer work or learning on the job make women competent in solving everyday organizational concerns and applying their knowledge in decision-making, planning, delegating, conflict resolution, negotiation, collaboration and team building.

  • Becoming adept in interpersonal skills enhance women leaders’ ability for collaboration, negotiations, networking and building relationships.

  • Projecting confidence to be successful as leaders. Women need to get over self-efficacy or doubt in their ability to succeed. Applying for promotions, taking chances and asking for what they deserve are crucial.

It is true that women need to work with policy formulators, corporations and other social organizations to be recognized for their contributions and to be represented in leadership positions. However, to have their voices heard, women themselves need to be proactive and resilient, stand up for their rights and project their confidence.

The years 2016 and 2017 showed the power of this — when some powerful and influential American women in leadership positions candidly spoke about the indignities and harassment they had to suffer from their male counterparts. Time Magazine named women as the Person of the Year under the title “The Silence Breakers.” The New York Times wrote, “female leaders are restricted by far more than ceilings. Glass walls erected by … unconscious biases box women into traditional roles and limit our opportunities.” 

Challenges and barriers of all kinds are there with regard to women in leadership roles, but with persistence, tenacity and determination women can bring change. They can make a difference in their lives and serve as role models to others. Let this be the reflection for women and men on March 8.

Dr. Harwant Khush is a research consultant for Tero International. Originally from Tanzania, Africa, and India, Harwant has a Master’s degree in psychology from Punjab University in Chandigarh, Punjab, India. She also has a Master’s in Education from California State University in Sacramento, Calif. She also holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of the Philippines, Los Banos (UPLB), and worked as an affiliate scientist in the Research Management Center. She taught graduate courses in Management and Public Administration in the Colegio De Los Banos in Laguna, Philippines. As a member of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Davis Branch, she served as its media relations chairperson. Harwant continually contributes to numerous articles for Tero publications.

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