Naming the Unseen Barriers that Hold Women Leaders Back

Naming the Unseen Barriers that Hold Women Leaders Back is the Only Way to Develop Gender Equity in an Organization

By Audrey McGuckin, CEO, WOTW - 

Organizations are working against their own gender equity and inclusion strategies and they don’t even know it. Even organizations with a solid commitment to gender equity have barriers that keep the most experienced, skilled and driven women from professional advancement.

Why? Every organization has conditions for success. These conditions create a container for how organizations operate. Within that container are a number of conditions that hold women back. System structures that limit growth.

Many are focused on fixing the women when instead they should be focused on labeling the issues and fixing the system. The barriers are not always labeled as broken conditions, but they are broken. They are broken because they do not help women progress in the organization. They are rendering the gender equity program useless. Executives are basically running their gender equity efforts into brick walls. 

If you are able to name these conditions and identify the barriers, you can take the first real steps to changing what’s not working with your gender equity program. You can take down the walls. 

I have a saying I use with CEOs: “To see the truth you need to get on the balcony instead of staying on the dance floor.”  You need to step up to get a perspective on the systems operating within your organization. As a busy executive that can seem almost impossible, but the WOTW team helps CEOs do this all the time. We help you take a step back to view your culture and talent systems and name the unseen barriers that hold women back.

I see it every day, across every industry. Once we engage leadership and management teams and help them name the barriers, they are able to implement and sustain more equitable practices and mindsets. They are able to change their corporate systems. And then, and only then, do women leaders within their organizations advance effectively. 

To give examples, some of the unseen barriers we see holding women leaders back in organizations are:

  • Pride of ownership in the ERG or Women Network programs. Ownership can stall gender equity programs. To fix the issues you have to be willing to be self-aware and not prideful. You have to look at your programs through an objective lens. See where the barriers are and be willing to own them. 
  • Over mentoring instead of sponsorship. Mentorship and sponsorship are two different things. Sponsors are focused on providing connections for higher-profile opportunities and they advocate for women in places where they can’t advocate for themselves. By identifying if an approach is mentorship or sponsorship you can name the problem. Then you can choose the right approach and change it. 
  • A process of vague feedback. The way in which leaders give feedback within your organization can hold women back. In fact, one of the greatest systemic problems is that most women are given vague feedback. By understanding how feedback is given and which feedback is given in your organization, you can uncover the ways in which a lack of frank feedback is holding women back in your organization.
  • The mindsets of your executives need to change: Your executive team’s approach is not working. They say, “We have a company of 50% women.” But when we look at the top of the organization there is only 1 woman at the VP or executive level. To change an organization, executives need to realize that they need to adapt to new ways of thinking and be open to the fact that there’s more work to do. 

If you’re interested in uncovering the barriers in your gender equity program, schedule a meeting with WOTW Chief Client Officer, Erica Jossim.


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