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Have you hit the “glass ceiling” so many times, it feels as if the top of your head is flat? Has your journey through the executive ranks seem to have stalled out? Are your dedication and hard work going unrewarded? Are you feeling underappreciated or misunderstood in the workplace? If so…welcome to The Club!

“This is THE place, where like-minded, executive-minded, forward-thinking women come to communicate—collaborate—and celebrate everything that it means to be a career-focused woman in a male-dominated work environment. This isn’t about ‘us vs. them.’ This is about us making a name for ourselves—taking a seat, and truly owning that seat, at the executive table—and doing so not as ‘clones’ of men, but as authentic, self-confident, self-empowered women.”

Amanda Blesing

2 x Author; Women’s C-Suite Mentor & Executive Coach; Founder: The She-Suite™ Club

Where empowered women empower other women. Because when women win, everyone wins.

Seven Harsh Truths for Female Leaders: Navigating Challenges in a Male-Dominated World

In the ever-evolving landscape of leadership, women continue to face unique challenges that their male counterparts seldom encounter. Despite strides in gender equality, and much hard work by many, several significant realities for female leaders remain a testament to the persistent cultural and systemic biases that pervade professional environments. Understanding these challenges is crucial for fostering a more inclusive and equitable world.

Many of my clients lead in masculine dominated environments and every now and then I am horrified by something they share, from –

  • Micro-aggressions such as the CEO regularly referring to the ELT as “guys”, constantly being spoken over in meetings, or others blatantly taking credit for your work, through to
  • Significant gender pay inequity, having to jump through more hoops to even be considered for a seat at the table, or being let go for some sort of transgression that if a male leader had done it wouldn’t even have raised an eyebrow (Christina Colgate style).

It’s obvious that despite significant strides, we need to fix the system, not just focus on encouraging women. In the article that follows I’ve explored seven of these harsh truths female leaders face and how women manage to thrive despite them.

1. The Competence vs. Likability Trap

One of the most significant challenges for female leaders is navigating the “double bind”—the paradox where women are expected to be both competent and likeable, yet demonstrating competence often undermines their likability. Studies have shown that assertive women are frequently labelled as “bossy” or “abrasive,” while assertive men are seen as confident and strong. This double standard forces many women into a delicate balancing act, where we must temper our assertiveness to avoid backlash, often at the cost of not being taken seriously.

2. The Glass Ceiling and the Glass Cliff

You’ve probably heard of the “glass ceiling” – that invisible barrier preventing women from reaching senior leadership positions. Another phenomenon, the “glass cliff,” presents another unique danger. Women are more likely to be appointed to leadership roles during times of crisis, where the risk of failure is higher – which we’ve seen several times recently here in Australia throughout the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn. This rather precarious positioning sets women leaders up for greater scrutiny and criticism, making our tenure in these roles particularly challenging.

3. Dealing with Gender Bias and Micro-aggressions

Gender bias and micro-aggressions, both overt and subtle, are still prevalent in workplaces. Female leaders frequently encounter these everyday slights and insults that, though often unintentional, reinforce gender stereotypes. These can range from being interrupted in meetings, to having their ideas dismissed or appropriated by colleagues, or even having your male boss assume that you don’t want to be considered for a plum assignment because you have family responsibilities (to list a few). Such experiences can be demoralising and contribute to a frustrating work environment.

4. Balancing Work and Home: The Second Shift

Despite progress in gender roles, professional women often bear a disproportionate share of household and caregiving duties, known as the “second shift.” This dual burden can hinder their ability to fully commit to their careers, limiting opportunities for advancement and personal growth.

Adding to this challenge is the reality faced by the “sandwich generation”—women who simultaneously care for aging parents and their own children, with some even on baby-sitting duty for grand kids. This dual or multi role caregiving responsibility further strains women’s time and resources, exacerbating the struggle to balance professional and personal demands.

5. The Sponsorship Gap

Champions and sponsors are crucial for career growth, but women often have less access to these resources compared to men. Male leaders are more likely to mentor and sponsor other men, which perpetuates male dominance in leadership roles. Without strong advocates who are willing to open doors, put women forward and champion women into high places, we will continue to find it harder to climb the corporate ladder.

6. The Persistent Pay & Recognition Gap

The gender pay gap remains a stubborn issue, with women earning less than their male counterparts for similar roles and responsibilities. This disparity extends to recognition and rewards, where female leaders often receive less credit for their achievements. A few weeks ago I shared some fascinating statistics that show the pay gap is truly alive and flourishing with (according to one recent study) women working in the finance sector earn a similar hourly rate to male nurses, despite their male contemporaries being the second-most-well paid professionals after medicos. Such inequities not only undermine an individual woman’s financial stability but undermines women and families everywhere. When we don’t pay women well, it’s not just women missing out, it’s families doing it tougher as well. Plus it also undermines our professional legitimacy and confidence.

7. Battling Stereotypes and Expectations

Narrow societal stereotypes about gender roles can often affect perceptions of leadership. Women are often expected to be nurturing and empathetic, traits that can conflict with the decisiveness and assertiveness traditionally valued in leaders. Additionally, when it comes to standing out to decision makers, the flagrant self-promotion tactics that are often expected don’t sit well with many who have been socialised to be more humble. Damned if we do, yet doomed when we don’t – as I write in my book Invisible to Invincible – a self-promotion handbook for executive women. These societal expectations create additional pressure on female leaders to conform to conflicting standards, which can detract and distract from our effectiveness and authenticity.

Despite the Challenges Women are Resilient and Creative

Despite these challenges, female leaders show incredible resilience, persistence and creativity. We build supportive networks, seek mentors and sponsorship, and advocate for both ourselves and others. And when we can’t find a seat at the table, we create a table for ourselves – as we are seeing record numbers of senior women leaving to re-evaluate their opportunities, do something different or even start our own businesses. By believing in ourselves, then leveraging our unique strengths and different perspectives, women will continue to progress (albeit slower than we like), thrive even, and continue inspire future generations of women leaders.

As a young Instagram influencer recently said (paraphrased) “until such time as bringing a birthday cake to the office was seen as a promotable activity, we won’t have gender equity”. And while it was said with tongue in cheek, there is definitely some truth to that.

References

  1. Catalyst Report: The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership
  2. The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions
  3. The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home
  4. Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women
  5. It’s Not What You Do But Who You Are: gender pay gap myths busted
  6. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
  7. Women in the Workplace 2023

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In the past I’ve shared how some of my female clients doubled or even tripled their salary, to give you ideas on how to be creative with your efforts to win pay rises, promotions and to be recognised as you truly deserve. This week I want to celebrate an amazing woman who thought outside the square when it came to creative career moves.
Eliminating the glass ceiling has proven to be incredibly challenging. Despite hard work by many it remains a persistent barrier for women, business and society. Instead, gender inequity is more of a complex societal and systemic issue that will require a systemic approach with joined up thinking and a multi-faceted approach - and programs that support women are only one small part of the puzzle.

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What My Incredible Clients Have to Say…

Thank you so much Amanda. You have brought out the best of me and put it on a page.

Amanda helped me build my digital brand with a strategic approach that’s aligned to my long-term career goals. I learned to add value and richness to my network and customers, and I have a visibility strategy that is above the line and future-focused!

It’s a blast working with Amanda – I can feel the momentum growing – now a matter of me putting my foot on the pedal to get myself out there in full confidence!

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11 Point Executive Career Toolkit Checklist

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11 Point Executive Career
Toolkit Checklist

To ensure you are never caught out, and are perfectly positioned to put your best foot forward in your career, every time.

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