What’s Holding Back Women in U.S. Corporations?

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Gender inequality—the result of differences in socially constructed gender roles—remains a major barrier to the advancement of women in the workforce. There has been progress during the past years, as exemplified by the number of women-owned firms in the U.S., which continues to climb and is now estimated to have surpassed 9.4 million enterprises—30% of all businesses in the country. In addition, the gender pay gap is lower than it has ever been. However, there is still progress to be made and, among other needed advances, the number of women that reach top leadership positions must be improved.

Photo credit: Parker Knight, CC BY 2.0

A 2015 study undertaken by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company (Women in the Workplace) shows that women remain underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline and that—at the rate of progress of the past three years—it will take a long time for the upper reaches of U.S. corporations to achieve gender parity: 25 years for the senior-VP level, and more than 100 years for the C-suite.

Why are women underrepresented in the corporate pipeline? The general assumptions are that women are leaving companies at higher rates than men, or that women have difficulties in balancing work and family. However, the study—which involved the participation of 118 companies and nearly 30,000 employees—points out that women remain underrepresented because they face greater barriers to advancement and a steeper path to senior leadership.

So, what are the specific barriers that hold back women in U.S. corporations? According to the study, there are 6 major obstacles to women’s advancement:

  • The leadership ambition gap persists—women are less eager than men to become a top executive
  • Women experience an uneven playing field—they believe to have fewer opportunities to advance because of their gender
  • Gender diversity is not widely believed to be a priority—less than half of employees believe that gender diversity is a top priority for their CEO
  • Employee programs designed to help balance work and family are abundant, but participation is low among both sexes—employees are reluctant to participate out of concerns that using them will negatively affect their careers
  • There is still inequality at home—women continue to do a disproportionate share of child care 
and housework, so they are more likely to be affected by the challenges of juggling home and work responsibilities
  • Women and men have very different networks—men predominantly have male networks, while women have mostly female or mixed networks; given that men are more likely to hold senior leadership positions, women may end up with less access to senior-level sponsorship.

The findings from the Women in the Workplace study, being based on results from a large survey, may help debunk the myths that attempt to explain why women are underrepresented in U.S. corporations, and may encourage companies to build organizational cultures that allow both men and women to thrive in the workplace.

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. These are all great points as to why women are advancing more slowly than their male counterparts. The last point that “women and men have very different networks” sticks out the most to me, and poses a new viewpoint that I have never explored before. The fact that men tend to have a predominantly male network, whereas women tend to be connected with mostly women and some men, adds another dimension of challenge to reaching the top of a professional career. Males tend to hold leadership positions in current society, so it is typically more powerful to have a connection with a male. That increases the likelihood that the connection will be tied to a leadership position in some way, and will give the hopeful candidate for a promotion or career advancement a personal connection with powerful authority. Women, on the other hand, are less likely to have connections with those in positions of power. This makes it even more likely for a man to be chosen over a woman on the simple fact that men are more likely to be known by authority. And if they are not known personally, they will probably have mutual connections that can form a bridge. This is a subtle difference, but can make a massive impact on the end results and decisions made by people in positions of power.

    The other points, such as gender diversity not being a priority, are discussions that have been happening for decades now. These points are not new, so there is no excuse for the lack of progress seen in these sectors. We must find a way to make substantial progress in gender diversity, instead of just talking in vague terms and taking no action. Companies should be required to have a certain degree of gender diversity, instead of the diversity just being suggested.

  2. The barrier that stuck out to me the most was that employees do not see gender equality as a top priority for their CEOs. You cannot fix a problem if you do not acknowledge that it exists. Granted, CEOs have a lot to think about on a daily basis but if the change does not start from the top then it will take longer for it to take root and may not even stick at all. I believe that the first step to eliminating this barrier is to help people realize that gender equality in the workplace is a problem and needs to be addressed by the people who have the power to fix it. I think some people, men and women alike, are afraid to speak up about this issue in fear that it might stir up controversy. That is why I think it is so important that the CEOs should take a stance on it so that employees will see that it is something they can feel free to discuss.

  3. This is a very important issue that has been getting more and more attention but not nearly soon enough. There have been many studies done on the unequal representation in leadership, and there have been strides taken to make those gaps more apparent, but what we really need is action. Women are not the only ones underrepresented in leadership roles though, and I believe that the closing of gaps in equality needs to occur wherever they are found.
    Representation in leadership first needs to be made transparent, and from there I think we can rise to occasion of finding a solution as it is possible to ignore a problem if we can imagine it not existing. One cannot argue with numbers of who’s represented in the leadership positions of all the major corporations, universities, and governments. Once the issue cannot be ignored, we will be forced to creatively find ways to achieve parity perhaps through simply acknowledging that there is a bias and considering it in making personnel decisions.
    At least three of the 6 reasons behind this gender gap listed in this blog are direct results of socialization. When we work on ourselves by acknowledging that there is a gap and making strides to correct actions based on those biases that perpetuate the gap, we will be leaders in the movement. When others observe our actions that result from the consideration of socialization, bias, and what one really stands for, they are provided the opportunity to look at themselves and make similar changes if they are so inspired. I believe firmly in the power of my actions and leading through example.
    We have the power to demand transparency while finding our own biases and seeking to be better people in order to promote the equality of all and live harmoniously.

  4. The roadblocks facing women progressing in the workforce are numerous, as stated the blogpost. One of the barriers that stood out to me the most is difference in the leadership ambition gap between men and women. As this is something I struggle with myself, I have ambitions but I tend to make decisions based off of future plans I have to possibly start a family. Sheryl Sandberg appropriately approaches this subject in her book Lean IN. She discusses the subject by saying the inequality in the home should be addressed and redistributed more equally among men and women, particularly when there are children. Given this issue be addressed, it would help remediate both of these problems.

  5. In my opinion, it isn’t just one aspect in the job sector that is keeping women from reaching the top, but a series of roadblocks that have been put in place which were established at a time where the division of men and women were more apparent. The job world still exists in the fashion where it is expected that one partner works while the other stays at home. Unfortunately because of this work model, women often get the short end of the stick because we still live in a world where women are still seen as the sole caregiver of her children instead of her husband. Corporations need to acknowledge that times are changing and the old business model needs to be revolutionized. Men are more and more beginning to appreciate equal commitment in family duties but their jobs are keeping them from actually compromising with their wives. If they both want to alternatively stay at home to take care of the kids then there is a likelihood that they will both lose their jobs or face ridicule for not having enough commitment in their jobs. Thus one has to decide to go the part time route while the other works full time and unfortunately the wife ends up doing the traditional home duties.

    It is my belief that change can truly happen new methods are implemented by corporations that take into account that both men and women have familial duties. Programs should be made to encourage men to support their wives in the home and encourage wives to seek higher positions at her job. With the help from employers and programs to encourage equal contribution to the family by both genders, I think woman can have the same footing as men.

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