Female Leadership in the Future - The Six Challenges That We Still Face
Updated: Jul 17
Women now have more opportunities in the workplace than they’ve ever had before. But we’re still a long way from the ideal, as there are still obstacles to overcome before we achieve true parity.
When you compare the modern workplace to that of 50 years ago, you can see just how far women have come. In fact, we’re now seeing the rise of more female leaders than ever before.
This is undoubtedly good news.
But there’s still a lot of work we need to do before women can achieve true equality in the workplace. Despite all the advances we’ve seen, men still hold far more positions of leadership than women.
A proof of this is when we look at 2019’s Fortune 500 companies. Out of all these companies, only 33 have female leaders.
That’s a record-breaking number!
What these figures also highlight is that women still face challenges in the workplace. In particular, those who wish to ascend to leadership positions will face obstacles that many men don’t face.
As a woman on the rise, you need to know what those obstacles are in order to prepare for them. And in this article, we draw upon the opinions of today’s female leaders to find out what challenges you may face in the future.
Challenge #1 – Your Own Self-Doubt
As frustrating as it is, we must accept that one’s own mentality is still part of the challenge that future female leaders will face.
Many women simply don’t believe that they’re capable of leading. If allowed to grow, that self-doubt will fester, to the point where it prevents them from even trying at all.
This is a situation that Claude Silver faced early in her career. Today, she’s the Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia. But, she recalled that self-doubt held her back in the past:
“So many of my obstacles early on were brought on by myself - self-doubt, putting myself in the ‘not smart’ bucket, not taking up space. The thing is, when you choose to not take up space, you take yourself out of the game.”
She went on to point out that her self-doubt prevented her from seeking out opportunities. Instead, she simply waited and hoped that opportunities would come along.
It was only after realizing just how talented she really is that Silver became the leader she is today.
And that’s the key to overcoming this challenge.
Remind yourself every day that you are good enough, you are smart enough, and you have something to contribute. Don’t wait for fate to give you an opportunity. Figure out what you want and where you want to be.
Then, go out and look for it. Educate yourself and do what you need to do in order to achieve your goals.
Challenge #2 – Unconscious Bias
Overcoming your own doubts about yourself puts you in a much stronger position. However, you still face challenges that are seemingly inherent in many workplaces.
Unconscious bias is one of those that are most prevalent.
Bias in the workplace tends to refer to a preference for one group over another. When it’s a conscious bias, it’s something that can be confronted. If somebody wears their biases on their sleeve, you can challenge them and create arguments against them.
Unconscious bias may be a bit more dangerous, simply because a person may not realize that they have them.
The Managing Director of 3M Singapore, Yuko Nakahira, highlighted this when she said:
“…I think there is a need to teach employees how to manage their unconscious bias. This should start from the top and leaders must walk the talk.”
The way to confront unconscious bias is to show that it exists. This may involve demonstrating a hiring pattern that favors one group over any other. Often, the person with the bias will wish to rectify the problem because they didn’t even realize that it existed.
Training, according to Nakahira, can help reveal the fact that these biases are present in the workplace. And once revealed, these biases become much easier to tackle.
But if the problem never gets confronted, it’s allowed to grow and seep into all areas of an organization. Tackling these biases allows for the creation of more inclusive workplaces.
Challenge #3 – Getting into the C-Suite
A company’s C-Suite is its executive-level leaders. These are the people who influence the entire direction of the company and hold the most power within it.
And as we see from the Fortune 500 list, there’s still a distinct lack of women in C-Suite positions. While women make strides every year in this area, parity is still a long way off.
Karima Mariama Arthur recognized this problem. A leadership expert, Arthur is the founder of WordSmithRapport, which offers consulting services.
“[Women] are taking more risks and preparing themselves to take on more challenging roles. That said, one of the greatest obstacles they face is making their way to the C-suite. My advice is that they take the bull by the horns.”
Much like when confronting your own self-doubt, you need to take the initiative when confronted with this problem. Don’t wait for C-Suite opportunities to come to you - they rarely will.
Instead, follow Arthur’s advice and take the bull by the horns. Fight for the roles you want to get and prove to others that you’re an undeniable talent in the workplace.
Challenge #4 – Gender Bias
While we’ve examined unconscious bias on a general level, it becomes more dangerous when it evolves into gender bias.
Many women still experience this on a daily basis. When somebody has a gender bias, they will simply pass over the opposite gender, often women, because they believe they can’t contribute as much as the other gender.
JVZoo CEO Laura Casselman said she still experiences this bias daily. And she provided a perfect example of it in action:
“Recently, I attended one of the largest trade shows in my industry and was consistently overlooked by men wanting to do business with my company, but who assumed the man standing near our booth was in charge rather than me.”
There’s nothing inherently malicious in many of these assumptions. She even said that the people who erred immediately apologized after she corrected them.
However, even an action that isn’t malicious at all can still damage your chances as a leader. Casselman recommended that all women should arm themselves with indisputable facts to confront this type of bias.
Use the quality of your performance to demonstrate that you’re a capable leader. Nobody can deny the numbers.
Challenge #5 – A Lack of Role Models
Again, we can refer back to the Fortune 500 list when speaking about female role models in leadership. From that list alone, women have 33 other women to look up to.
Men, on the other hand, have 467 other men that they can consider role models.
The former president, chairperson, and CEO of IBM Ginni Rometty pointed out the effect that this disparity has:
“Women need role models -- there's still a small minority who are running major businesses.”
The simple fact is that women have fewer examples of people to look up to compared to men. But, these examples and trailblazers do exist. You may just need to look a little harder to find an example of somebody to look up to.
Challenge #6 – Balancing Family With Work
This has been a challenge for women in the workplace for centuries. And unfortunately, many still subscribe to the idea that the man goes to work while the woman stays home to look after the children.
And it’s this ideology that can lead to female leaders feeling guilty. As Reward Gateway’s Group SVP Sales, Shelley Lavery, puts it:
“I heard a woman once say she always felt like she was failing. When she was kicking butt at her job she felt she was failing as a mother, and when she was spending quality time with her children she felt she was failing in her career.”
Much like with the problem of self-doubt mentioned earlier, this challenge comes down to mentality.
You may feel like you’re abandoning your children when you go to work.
Or, you may feel like you’re not contributing to the household as much as you should compared to if you stay at home.
The key to overcoming this challenge is to understand that nobody’s perfect in this regard.
There may be times when you get the balance wrong and prioritize one thing over the other. But that’s no reason to feel guilty. As long as you redress the balance and take pride in the amazing things you’ve accomplished, guilt cannot hold you back.
Take the Bull by the Horns
With every passing year, women become more and more empowered. Slowly but surely, more women manage to claw their way up into leadership positions that may never have existed for them years ago.
It’s these women that open doors for the female leaders of the future.
But as a future female leader, you cannot become complacent. You will still have challenges to overcome. And also, you must understand that you may have to push harder than others to achieve your goals.
But if you recognize those challenges and confront them head-on, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.
As a female leader in my own right, I’d relish the opportunity to speak to your group about these challenges. Please get in touch with me today if you’d like to book me for your next speaking engagement.