As of 2022 only 39% of senior management or leadership positions, such as CEOs, are held by women. While women comprise of only 6% of CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, 21% of the civil service board, and 35% of civil service permanent secretaries, none of these are women of colour.
Only 39% of senior management or leadership positions, such as CEOs, are held by women
Although this puts the United Kingdom second in the international rankings of women’s representation in leadership positions, women still face numerous obstacles that make their path to leadership more challenging than their male counterparts. Women of colour, women with disabilities and LGBTQ+ women experience intersecting forms of discrimination. This affects their career development and chances of promotion.
Supporting women looking to fulfil a leadership role is more critical now than ever, with the Covid-19 pandemic setting global gender equality back by a decade. But what are the issues women face, and how can we make their paths to leadership easier?
Obstacles Women Face
There is no doubt that women face distinctive obstacles that often hinder them from progressing in leadership roles. Although we would hope that men and women would have equal opportunities, this is sadly not the case. Unfortunately, structural inequalities based on gender, race, disability, gender identity and sexuality still exist in the United Kingdom.
On average, in the United Kingdom women spend 60% more time than men on unpaid work including childcare responsibilities and care for family members.
Below we share some of the most common obstacles working women face.
On average, in the United Kingdom women spend 60% more time than men on unpaid work including childcare responsibilities and care for family members. In order to fulfil these responsibilities, women are more likely than men to work part-time. This affects their career progression and earnings (contributing to the United Kingdom’s persistent gender pay gap).
According to a report published by CarersUK, women are more likely to be ‘sandwich’ carers, meaning they often simultaneously care for their children and elderly parents. Contributing to this research, Age UK confirmed that 49% of women who are ‘sandwich carers’ frequently provide full-time care to relatives whilst juggling a career.
Although more people gained access to flexible working arrangements – which can enable women to balance unpaid and paid responsibilities – during the Covid-19 pandemic, these opportunities are more likely to be offered to highly skilled workers, and many lower skilled workers still do not have access. Where flexible working arrangements do exist, evidence from the United Kingdom suggests that flexible workers may experience negative repercussions and social stigma, as they may be perceived to be less committed to their work in organisations where flexible working is not the norm. Eliminating this barrier for women will require culture change in many organisations. Additionally, the high cost of childcare in the United Kingdom limits many women’s options for reducing their unpaid labour – policies to improve affordability and access can give families more options.
Women in the United Kingdom are more likely to take career breaks to care for family members than men.
Women in the United Kingdom are more likely to take career breaks to care for family members than men. In fact, a 2019 study found that 74% of women take time away from the workplace to do so. Women undertake more unpaid care work than men, contributing to their lower relative earnings. They are therefore more likely than men to take time out of work for caring responsibilities. This sets back women’s career development and perpetuates gender inequality.
77% of working mothers had negative or possibly discriminatory experiences during pregnancy, maternity leave or returning to work, according to 2018 research by the Equity and Human Rights Commission. For example, employers sometimes ask women returning from maternity leave to accept lower status or lower paid jobs, despite women having a right to return to a suitable alternative job. Only 18% of women felt happy and confident about returning to work after maternity leave, according to a survey by MMB Magazine (of whom 72% of respondents worked at management level or above).
More support is needed for women returning to work, including job sharing arrangements, flexible working, and other measures. Women should still be offered equal progression opportunities and the ability to return to leadership positions after maternity leave or other career breaks.
77% of working mothers had negative or possibly discriminatory experiences during pregnancy, maternity leave or returning to work.
The menopause often begins between the ages of 45 and 55 and lasts around seven years, although some people experience early onset menopause. It can have a significant impact on women, trans and non-binary people experiencing its associated symptoms.
Women, trans and non-binary people experiencing menopause symptoms may request time off work, take a career break, or even resign. Without workplaces considering menopause symptoms, or making necessary adjustments, women may unfairly miss out on promotions or leadership opportunities. Workplaces can do more to support individuals experiencing the menopause – for example, by conducting a menopause-related risk assessment and making adjustments (such as adjusting office temperatures and relaxing dress codes).
Women with disabilities continue to be overlooked for leadership roles, with only 2.3% of disabled women holding positions as managers.
Intersecting Forms of Discrimination
Almost one-third of black and ethnic minority (BME) women in the United Kingdom reported being denied or unfairly passed over for a promotion opportunity, according to a recent study by the Trades Union Congress. Nearly one-third of BME women, and more than half (52%) of BME women with disabilities, reported being unfairly denied access to professional development opportunities.
This is due to a range of structural barriers. Research shows that due to racial and gendered bias, women of colour are likely to have more limited informal advice and networks within their organisations, and their accomplishments are less likely to be recognised. In many cases, women of colour face racial bias and stereotypes that affect perceptions of their leadership styles (compared with those of white women). These challenges often impact their confidence and can in turn affect their likelihood of applying for development and promotion opportunities.
Discrimination against people with disabilities remains an obstacle for women hoping to progress in leadership roles. Women with disabilities continue to be overlooked for leadership roles, with only 2.3% of disabled women holding positions as managers, senior officials or law-makers.
Additionally, in a 2019 survey in the United Kingdom, nearly 70% of LBGT people reported being sexually harassed at work. LGBT women, and particularly BME LGBT women and LGBT disabled women, were most likely to experience unwanted touching and sexual assault at work. Stereotypes also affect perceptions of lesbian and bisexual women in leadership positions – affecting women’s confidence in their career advancement.
To make women’s paths to leadership easier, these issues must be addressed head-on, for example, by designing and enforcing effective workplace harassment policies, including ones that address discrimination on a dual basis (such as sexual orientation and gender). Employers can ensure equitable access to advancement opportunities through proportional promotion policies, targeted professional development training programmes and/or making progression routes within an organisation more transparent.
LGBT women, and particularly BME LGBT women and LGBT disabled women, were most likely to experience unwanted touching and sexual assault at work.
Women remain underrepresented in senior leadership roles in the United Kingdom. Although the numbers have improved over past decades, women still face many challenges on their paths to leadership. But what impact does this have on women now? And what does this mean for future female leaders?
These challenges on women’s paths to leadership prevents women from achieving their full potential and excelling in their careers. They also deprive businesses and organisations of a more diverse range of perspectives when it comes to decision-making. Evidence suggests that the current underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in the United Kingdom is negatively impacting the economy. A recent study by The Pipeline found that the underrepresentation of women in top jobs could be costing the economy up to £47 billion. There is also evidence that higher levels of women’s participation in leadership is associated with more environmentally friendly decision-making, both on corporate boards and in national parliaments.
A lack of women – especially LGBTQ+ women, BME women and women with disabilities – in leadership positions means girls and young women have fewer role models. This may lead girls and young women to believe that they are unable to fulfil said roles, affecting their confidence. This unequal representation may also perpetuate stereotypes and structural inequalities.
A recent study by The Pipeline found that the underrepresentation of women in top jobs could be costing the economy up to £47 billion.
Making Women’s Paths to Leadership Easier
In recent years, women have undoubtedly made great strides in achieving leadership positions. However, there is much work to be done.
To make women’s paths to leadership easier, it is vital that organisations firstly support women and address structural inequality. Not only must they offer women more flexibility, for example, for career breaks and maternity leave, but they must address the many different challenges women face. This could include enforcing workplace policies against harassment, addressing bias and discrimination in hiring and promotion (such as through unconscious bias training and strategies like proportional promotions) and making adjustments for people experiencing menopause symptoms. It will also require cultural change – for example, by normalising flexible working arrangements and creating a truly inclusive work environment.
Secondly, it is paramount that organisations, irrespective of their size or industry, offer mentoring programmes or leadership coaching for women looking to progress in their current roles or advance to leadership positions. Mentoring programmes are particularly impactful as they help women to learn new skills, build their confidence and feel more engaged with their position.
Written by The Leadership Coaches and co-edited by Nina Jeffs, Wen Volunteer