Organizational Strategies for Breaking the Glass Ceiling

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Most of us are well aware of the lack of a significant female leadership presence across industries. Among Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies, women fill only 4-5% of CEO roles, less than 25% of executive and senior-level positions, and less than 20% of board seats. The lack of representation of female leaders is similar in other sectors such as healthcare and higher education. We also know that these disparities cannot be attributed to educational level, as women are earning more degrees than men, or to poor business outcomes, as every indicator points to the positive impact made by female leaders. In their recent article published in the American Journal of Health System Pharmacists, Chisholm and colleagues identify seven barriers to women achieving their leadership goals: 

  1. Conscious and unconscious gender bias
  2. Lack of mentality to pursue leadershp
  3. Lack of mentors, role models, and sponsors
  4. Lack of policies supporting work-life balance
  5. Work-life integration issues
  6. The "lean out" phenomenon
  7. Lack of internal and external networks, recognitions, opportunities, or resources

What can your organization do to actively combat these barriers? Chisholm and her colleagues suggest a number of helpful strategies. 

Combatting Conscious and Unconscious Gender Bias

Education is key in overcoming conscious and unconscious gender bias that prevents women from achieving their leadership goals. First, organizations committed to providing leadership opportunities for women should begin by providing workshops or seminars to help people identify their own biases as well as strategies for overcoming bias. Second, organizational leaders should be committed to helping aspiring women leaders identify their leadership challenges and work collaboratively with employees to design strategies to overcome them. Third, research has repeatedly shown the necessity of diverse and inclusive search committees to increase representation of women and minorities in key leadership roles. Finally, leadership should regularly conduct work force assessments and surveys of work climate to identify problematic areas to be addressed in future initiatives.

Lack of Mentality to Pursue Leadership and Lack of Mentors, Role Models, and Sponsors

Some women do not think of themselves as leaders, even when they possess the necessary knowledge, skill, and ability to hold a leadership role. This may be attributed to the lack of female role models in leadership roles. In order to overcome this barrier, organizations should make a concerted effort to nurture relationships between aspiring and successful female leaders through mentoring, coaching, or sponsorship programs. Additionally, organizations should cultivate leadership development of high potential women through encouraging and supporting them to proactively manage career plans; facilitating leadership development among women; and actively recruiting women into elected and appointed leadership roles. Finally, it is important that organizations make an effort to connect aspiring female leaders to current male leaders who are influential in the organization. Often overlooked, this strategy is necessary for younger women to build their social capital in the organization and to garner support from current leadership.

Lack of Policies Supporting Work/Life Balance, Work/Life Integration Challenges, and the "Lean Out" Phenomenon

To overcome these barriers, organizations should begin by conducting best practices research to identify those organizations who are consistently rated as providing work/life balance to their employees. What are they doing differently than your organization? What innovative strategies are they utilizing to promote overall health and well-being among their employees? After collecting this information, genuinely examine and consider implementation of policies that could promote more work/life balance in your organization. In addition to policy-level changes, providing educational opportunities for employees promoting work-life balance will enforce the message that actually having balance is valued by the company. If, however, senior leaders do not demonstrate this in their own lives and work practices, work-life balance will not improve throughout your organization. As a leader, examine your own behaviors. Do you send emails to direct reports at all hours of the day and night? Do you call employees on weekends and expect them to be available to you outside of work hours? Do you take vacations? Your work behavior will significantly influence those below you, and demonstrating workaholic behaviors can be particularly detrimental to aspiring female leaders who don't see those behaviors as possible alongside their family responsibities.

Lack of Internal and External Networks, Recognitions, Opportunities, and Resources

If your organization is committed to increasing the presence of female leadership, you unfortunately cannot simply wait for it to happen. Rather, an active approach is necessary to bring about the cultural change necessary to support women in leadership. Organizations should regularly conduct institutional research to assess gender inequity in salaries, bonuses, and leadership positions and actively work to make appropriate adjustments. Additionally, talented women should be actively recruited into leadership positions and supported in their advancement through access to education and training that have been shown to impact career advancement. Finally, women should be encouraged by their superiors to seek out and take on visible and complex assignments that demonstrate their ability to produce results and should be publicly recognized for their success in doing so.

Increasing the number of women in leadership roles is a pervasive challenge in our culture that requires collaboration at all levels of organizations to overcome. What is your organization already doing to promote women in leadership roles? How can your efforts be improved?


Chisholm-Burns, M.A., Spivey, C.A., Hagemann, T., & Josephson, M.A. (2017). Women in leadership and the bewildering glass ceiling. American Journal of Health System Pharmacists, 4, 312-324.


Jaime GoffComment