Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Tackling the Issue of Women’s Underrepresentation in Leadership Roles


A research by ILPP

This article focuses on the various obstacles that prevent women from attaining leadership roles and proposes effective strategies to overcome them.

For decades, women have been fighting to break through the glass ceiling and achieve equality in leadership positions across various industries. Despite small gains in recent years, statistics on women in leadership roles show that the gender gap remains. As of 2022, only 8.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs (44 CEOs) were women, although that’s a significant improvement from the zero female Fortune 500 CEOs in 1995, according to Zippia. Five new women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies began their roles as of January 1, 2023, which tipped the percentage balance to over 10%, for the first time, or to 53 CEOs, according to data from Fortune.
It is evident that women still face numerous obstacles that prevent them from reaching the top. From implicit biases and gender stereotypes to a lack of mentorship and networking opportunities, many systemic issues perpetuate women's underrepresentation in leadership roles.
In this article, we will explore the root causes of this problem and suggest actionable solutions to help women shatter the glass ceiling and achieve the same level of success as their male counterparts.

The Glass Ceiling: A Brief Overview

The term "glass ceiling" was coined in the 1980s to describe the invisible barrier that prevents women from advancing to top-level positions in organizations. The metaphorical ceiling is made of invisible barriers such as sexism, racism, and gender stereotypes, among others. The glass ceiling is not limited to one particular industry but is a universal problem affecting women across different fields, including business, politics, and academia. Despite progress over the years, the glass ceiling is still present, and women's representation in leadership roles remains limited.

Barriers to Women in Leadership

Women possess equal education, talent, and work ethic as their male counterparts. Even though they don’t necessarily face significant barriers to enter the workplace they seem to encounter difficulties to advance and reach higher positions than men. Several factors contribute to women's underrepresentation in leadership roles, including the following barriers:

·        Gender stereotypes

Gender stereotypes negatively affect the perception of women's leadership abilities. Society often views men as assertive and aggressive leaders while viewing women as emotional and nurturing. These stereotypes prevent women from being taken seriously in leadership positions, and their abilities are often underestimated. According to Eagerly & Wood (1991), gender stereotypes assert that men should display agentic traits such as independence, assertiveness, dominance, and competence. In contrast, women should display communal traits such as friendliness, emotional expressiveness, nurturance, and compassion. Additionally, men have been leaders for so long that when women exhibit those same leadership traits as men they are misunderstood, seen negatively, or taken less seriously. Even the traits of a good leader are often seen as masculine due to the fact that they are largely based on an outdated male model that shuts women out. Several studies show that managers (whether male or female) are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong whereas the same traits are perceived positively in men. In other words, in situations where men are considered assertive women are seen as bossy.

·        Discrimination and bias

A surprising number of people still distrust women leaders. The reason for this is a deep-rooted bias that many people don’t even realize they have. After extensive study, The Harvard Business Review concludes that the sort of biases women encounter today are more harmful and destructive than the blatant discrimination of earlier decades. In a study of the financial services industry, they found that women who entered the industry thirty years ago expected sexism in the workplace. Because of that, they were more emotionally prepared for it. Nowadays, their younger counterparts are shocked when they begin to encounter the unsaid requirements for success in the industry. In a workplace where biases that favor men are present, women can face many obstacles such as being passed over for promotion, encountering unprofessional behavior, and in extreme cases experiencing sexual or workplace harassment.

·        Prejudice: women can't be CEOs and moms 

Another barrier that prevents women from becoming leaders is the common prejudice that when a woman becomes a mother, she won’t be able to work as much or as effectively as before. Employers assume that after maternity leave, the woman will be less driven and motivated and therefore unable to advance on the career ladder. This is, of course, an outdated view. Women have proven time and time again that they can be both moms and CEOs. However, this is something that some women see as a setback as well. It is hard to balance both things and naturally, women can express doubts about whether or not they will be successful in making it work. Not every woman that becomes a mother has a family who will take care of her child while she’s working or the resources to hire a nanny in cases when both parents are at work. So, this certainly can be an obstacle if the workplace doesn’t offer support and flexible hours.

·        Lack of flexibility

As I mentioned previously, lack of flexibility contributes to the issue of women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions. Women who plan on becoming mothers in the future would benefit from flexible hours and flexible work environments. A vast majority of employees, not just women, want to work for companies that offer remote or hybrid-work options. According to the Women in the Workplace 2022 report conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.Org, women employees who can choose to work in the arrangement they prefer—whether remote or on-site—are less burned out, happier in their jobs, and much less likely to consider leaving their companies. As a result, they are more motivated to advance in their job and undertake leadership positions.

The Benefits of Gender-Inclusive Leadership

Gender-inclusive leadership can provide many benefits to organizations and society as a whole. All genders benefit when individuals are free to make their own choices. For example, women taking on leadership positions will allow men to embrace caretaking roles. Also, families are more secure when women have higher-paying leadership roles, especially in single-parent families where the woman is the only breadwinner. Another potential benefit is a diversity of perspectives: There is a wider range of viewpoints, experiences, and ideas present at the decision-making table when leadership is gender inclusive. This can lead to more creative and efficient approaches to problems. Additionally, gender-inclusive leadership can foster a more inclusive and inviting work environment, which can boost employee morale and lower turnover rates. Further, gender-inclusive leadership can help organizations better understand their customers, who are diverse in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and other factors. This can contribute to better marketing and sales strategies that appeal to a broader range of customers, ultimately fostering increased profitability. An additional benefit of gender-inclusive leadership is contributing to broader social progress by challenging gender stereotypes and promoting gender equality. As a result, a more just and equitable society will be created.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Solutions

There are many things needed to be done in order to break the glass ceiling, there is not just one solution, and we cannot expect the problem to be solved instantly. However, we have to start somewhere. For example, employers need to prioritize an equitable workplace by broadening the scope of recruitment networks and expanding candidate pools. Companies should aim to have a diverse and inclusive workforce. This means providing equal opportunities and representation for women, people of color, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups. Another important thing I already mentioned is for employers to offer workplace flexibility policies that will enable all employees to find an appropriate work/life balance. Last but not least, it is crucial for companies to provide mentorship and sponsorship to women. According to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, 80% of CEOs have had a mentor. The Small Business Administration cites 70% of mentored businesses stay in business for more than five years. In other words, mentorship is key to putting more women in leadership positions. However, women leaders already tend to mentor other women. It is important to point out that we need more male mentors willing to devote the necessary time and effort to coach, guide, and advocate for women in their professional journeys, enabling them to advance to leadership positions.

What ILPP has done to support women in leadership

Through the project WomEntrepreneurship: IT and Engineering at their strongest, participants (girls and women) enhanced their soft skills, were mentored by other successful people, and received guidance on accessing the labor market while simultaneously developing their professional portfolios. Also, ILPP collaborated with ten accomplished women from various fields - Valentina Taseva, Zana Beqiri Luma, Daniela Milosheska, Vlora Ademi, Bistra Kumbarovska, Lisa Bauta Shaqiri, Iva Matic, Fikrija Tairi, Mersiha Smailovic, and Arbana Maliki Kasami - to create uplifting and motivational videos about their successful careers. You can watch the videos on our official YouTube channel:
Through the project Increased Participation of Women in Politics in North Macedonia, ILPP contributed to more than 60 women leaders and elected officials effectively participating in politics after attending the training on effective public officials and building leaders among them. Additionally, 60 women were trained in fields such as good governance, accountability, activism, leadership, and public speaking.

These accomplishments are just a few of the many initiatives that the Institute for Leadership and Public Policy is undertaking to promote women leaders and address the issue of underrepresentation of women in leadership positions. We will continue to strive towards our goal of creating a more equitable and diverse society where women have an equal opportunity to lead and succeed.

Neda Josifoska, Junior researcher at ILPP

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