According to the International Labour Organization, the average global labor force participation rate for women in 2022 was just under 47%, while it was 72% for men. Most recently, the pandemic exacerbated the struggle for working women, with one in four women considering leaving the workforce due to burnout. The odds don’t favor women in leadership positions around the world.
But there is more. A 2022 Women in Workplace report by McKinsey states that from entry-level to manager, for every 100 men, only 87 women are promoted. The problem worsens as we go up the hierarchy. As of 2022, women CEOs lead 24 companies on the Global 500, a mere 4.8% of the world’s largest businesses As of 2022, only 15% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies were female. Joey Uppal, Director of Global Faculty Network at Emeritus, interviewed four HR leaders across industries. She spoke with these leaders to learn from their experiences as HR leaders and their journey to the top as women. These women in leadership positions shared their perspectives on women’s challenges at work and how organizations can support women to rise to the top.
What are the Challenges for Women in Leadership Positions?
The challenges to women achieving leadership positions are manifold, and they begin at home. Starting with access to higher education to competing in workplaces where the playing field is far from level, there is a cultural context to these problems. Here are some of the main challenges we identified while speaking with the four women HR leaders for Women’s Day.
1. Facing Burnouts From Doing Too Much
Even as of 2022, rising stress levels and burnout remain the top reasons for women quitting the workforce. Rakhee Samsi, Head of Management & Leadership Development RIL Industries Ltd., points out, “Men start work after they step into the office and stop working when they leave. Women don’t have that luxury.” In essence, women are burning out fast instead of shinning.
Preeti Bose adds, “It’s a Catch-22 situation. Women have to work harder to get promotions at work. In the process, if women in leadership positions display traditionally male leadership qualities like being assertive or domineering, they are immediately asked to ‘fix’ their behavior.”
2. Pursuing the Perfect Balance
At their workplace, women work harder to overcome biases and microaggressions as well as prove themselves, yet they are less likely to ask for help when they need it. Women have the mindset that they want to be 100% good at managing both work and home – that’s impossible, says Dhanashree Thakkar, Head – of Human Resources and Distribution Training, Bharati Axa Life Insurance. The concept of the elusive ‘perfect balance’ between work and home (not life, in the case of women) is utopian at best. And striving to achieve it causes stress, anxiety, and discontent in women leading to early burnout.
3. Undermining Their Ability
Bidisha Banerjee, Senior Vice President of Talent, Culture, and Employer Branding, at Welspun Group, agrees and adds, “I have seen so many women not even apply for the promotion thinking they aren’t skilled enough or ready for the job!” This lack of confidence in women is a product of conditioning; society at large does not see ambition as a feminine quality. So men chasing their careers are considered driven, and women doing the same are considered ruthless.
“No individual comes completely ready for a job or a promotion. But women often undermine themselves by feeling that they know only know about 70% of what the role requires. Hence, women often lose out on opportunities,” adds Bidisha Banerjee addressing why the ratio of women in leadership positions is skewed.
From long work hours to a lack of flexibility in working arrangements, from fewer opportunities to grow to not enough support from managers, women face many unique challenges in today’s workplaces. All our interviewees agreed that factors such as a lack of support from managers, tokenism in the form of policies like Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), and the negligible presence of male managers in women’s training and development programs also affect the chances of women taking on more prominent roles and advancing in their careers.
In such a situation, how can we see more women in leadership positions at work? What can organizations do to support women to understand their potential, balance work-life, and finally crush the glass ceiling?
How Can Organizations Support Women to Reach Leadership Roles?
As HR Leaders, our interviewees gave us insights into the role of inclusive training programs, commitment from CXOs toward creating equitable workplaces, and how women can develop their strengths to climb the ladder as leaders.
1. Hiring at Par
Women cannot be promoted to leadership positions if they are not even equal partners in the workforce. Organizations must start by hiring more women to build up a talent pool. After this, spotting high-performance employees and great talent early is also critical so that such talent can be mentored and nurtured for leadership roles.
2. Providing the Needed Support
“Measure the cost to business because of stress or burnout of employees,” says Preeti Bose drawing our attention to a critical aspect of women pulling a double load when it comes to responsibilities at home and work. Thus, designing pathways to leadership and creating support systems for women to manage their mental/physical well-being as well as balance work-life is crucial.
Rakhee Samsi backs this up as she says, “You don’t need to do every single job, and you don’t need to be perfect at it. Women need to work on creating an enabling ecosystem for themselves.”
3. Normalize Taking Time Out
Considering burnout is one of the leading causes of women leaving the workforce, women employees must prioritize their emotional health. “Normalize taking a day or time off when you need it. There is no shame in taking a break when you need it,” says Preethi Bose. This applies to women in leadership positions and even to those who are not yet in leadership roles.
4. Giving Flexibility at Work
“Organizations must understand the different dynamics of working with women, the age that they are at, and the kind of mentoring or coaching they require,” says Bidisha Banerjee. When it comes to flexibility at work, leaders must work with women employees to design flexible solutions. For instance, integrate work-from-home options to reduce their commute time. Organizations can also create training programs that focus on developing soft skills to help with confidence issues, especially in industries predominantly dominated by men.
5. Stay Away From Empty Tokenism
There is a need to walk the talk when it comes to promoting more women in leadership positions. However, on many occasions, tokenism takes precedence over actual impact. “The key is not to treat DEI as a checkbox. Include managers, especially male managers, in training programs for women. Help them understand the causes of burnout and women’s challenges.” says Bidisha Banerjee.
She adds, “Inclusive and diverse training programs are essential to educating women and their managers to recognize biases. Managers have to be trained to notice when a colleague gets spoken over or when a team member is too shy to put their name forward for promotion.”
6. Giving the Right Kind of Mentoring
Women must work on their vulnerabilities. In many parts of the world, women receive social conditioning that does not prepare them for a cutthroat work environment. They tend to be shy, have self-doubt, and be uncomfortable with authority. Here, HR leaders can step up by creating mentorship programs. Pair women with mentors or coaches early in their careers to build confidence.
Building this personal connection can help women employees overcome these internal challenges. Additionally, mentors or allies at work can help women employees believe that they deserve a seat at the table.
Can Skilling Help?
It’s important to remember that leadership is a skill, and it can be learned or developed. Designing women’s leadership programs must be a sincere, company-wide effort, not a forced mandate. Such programs should measure long-term impact and success. Women and their organizational leaders need to intentionally work together to resolve both personal and professional challenges that stop women from reaching their full potential at work.
Talk to us to know about our leadership programs that will help your organizations to create equitable workplaces for a successful future.
By Prakruti Maniar