Women in Leadership: Shattering the Glass Ceiling

Women in leadership is the tantalizing proposition of equity that has, for a century, seemed just around the corner. It’s interesting to take an honest look at the events of the last hundred years. Multiple pandemics, a world repeatedly shattered by military conflict, the destruction of the living planet’s most important systems, and unprecedented income inequality. What role has leadership played in those events? It seems the time is ripe to change the way humans organize to self-govern. And yet, the people running the world still seem eminently male. The “glass ceiling” keeping women from rising to leadership positions in commerce and government seems intact.

Or does it? There are other signs we can point to that the glass ceiling really does now have cracks in it. For instance, Kamala Harris as Vice President of the United States. Some of the world’s most powerful companies, such as Facebook, have embraced women in leadership positions. In this article, we’ll look at some of the obstacles still holding women back from true equity in leadership. We’ll also look at some of the ways women have made remarkable progress toward equal government in recent decades.

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Factors Affecting Women’s Participation in Leadership Positions

If gender equality could be achieved by a simple democratic majority, then America would already have it. The Pew Research Center reports that a majority of Americans believe women are just as capable as men when it comes to leadership. And yet, women remain underrepresented in the upper echelons of power. So what are the factors affecting women’s participation in leadership positions?

Pew offers a great deal of research toward answering this question. First and foremost, a near-majority of respondents hold women to a higher standard than men when it comes to leadership positions. This position was endorsed by 43% of respondents when it applied to executive positions in commercial organizations, and 38% of respondents regarding high political office. Other minority opinions act just as fiercely as headwinds to the will of the people. These headwinds make up a significant portion of what people refer to when they talk about “systemic” or “structural” discrimination. Other discriminating attitudes that prevent women in leadership include people & organizations flatly unready to hire women leaders, insufficient networks of support for women within organizational apparatuses, and family responsibilities.

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We should take care to remember that these headwinds are primarily human prejudice specific to the American milieu. They are not natural law pertaining to the workplace. Other countries that value women in leadership have been able to enact policies that counter these headwinds. For instance, some Western countries have begun experimenting with mandatory paternity leave. The presumption that the female caretaker of a child will miss more work is deep and difficult to eradicate. This has been used as a justification for inequality in salary and promotions for generations. By forcing men to take equal leave when they have a new child, the inequality is repaired and companies are incentivized to pay & promote workers as they deserve, regardless of gender.

Women in Leadership Conference

A subtle and pernicious headwind women face as they enter the workplace is that almost every pre-existing organization and government has a male-dominated culture. It might seem that an individual woman being hired as a senior leader at an all-male firm is a major mark of progress. But being a lone token minority offers no real power to initiate transformation from within. And even broader changes to the commercial and governing cultures are limited. What if multiple firms increase female entry-level hires from 0% to, say, 25% overnight? Those women will still be in a minority and disempowered from collaborating, from standing out, and from earning advancement. And of course, in an age violently opposed to the collective power of workers, there is no hope of achieving solidarity across multiple organizations.

This is where Women in Leadership conferences come in. There are many such conferences annually now, and they serve many different functions. They advance knowledge sharing about issues specific to women in the workplace and in leadership roles. They also provide safe (and not male-dominated) spaces in which women can freely communicate and synergize. This not only provides the education & emotional support necessary for individual women to step into leadership positions, it also attempts to cultivate a cultural change across the entire professional landscape.

Cornell Women in Leadership

The Cornell Women in Leadership program is an especially compelling resource for women interested in pursuing leadership roles (or anyone interested in helping advance the cause of women in leadership). The program is facilitated by Professor Deborah Streeter. She has achieved a powerful balance in the entire phenomenon of women in leadership. On the one hand, she has rigorous academic research, and practical teaching strategies for women pursuing leadership roles on the other. It’s a great place to start if you’re looking to grow in understanding around this topic.

Women in Leadership Roles

In the broad story of human history, the patriarchal and utterly male-dominated form of social organization is in fact an anomaly. There have been women in leadership roles of uncountable variety since the dawn of human organization. But still, in this day and age, it’s worth stopping to reflect on a few notable examples of women in leadership roles. It’s not just that representation is important for its own sake, but the models we see in the world help us imagine what’s possible.

Angela Merkel

Unfortunately, many European countries have outpaced the United States in working toward gender equity. Angela Merkel is an excellent illustration of countries making great strides. She has served as Chancellor of Germany since 2005, seeing that country, and all of Europe, through multiple crises, from the Great Recession to the global refugee crisis to, now, the Covid-19 pandemic. She is generally understood to be the most powerful woman in the world. Oh yeah, and before she helped spread democracy into the newly reunited Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall, she earned a doctorate for her work in quantum chemistry.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah established a successful—but relatively conventional—career in journalism. Then she launched the creation and syndication of her own TV show. This was the launching pad for one of the most powerful multimedia empires in the world! The various enterprises Winfrey now leads touch people in many different parts of their lives. Her shows span from journalism to entertainment to art to spirituality, not to mention health, wellness, beauty, and more. All of this combines to make Winfrey one of the most culturally influential humans of all time.

Sheryl Sandberg

Sandberg is famous for writing a seminal work in the field of women in leadership, Lean In. Of course, the arc of her own career has seen her step into a senior role at one of the most powerful companies in the world. She served in the role of Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. As Facebook’s reputation has suffered drastically in recent years, so has Sandberg been affected. Of course, as women achieve equity in leadership, they will also inevitably share in failures, controversies, and low points. It will be interesting, in the years ahead, to see how the increase of women in leadership roles will interact with people’s perceptions & preferences when it comes to issues of ethics, transparency, and accountability. Women in leadership, of course, invite different kinds and intensities of scrutiny.

Women in Leadership Roles Podcast

One of the best ways to learn about the history as well as the contemporary state of women in leadership is to subscribe to some women in leadership podcasts.

One of our favorites is Mothers of Invention. This women-produced podcast is hosted by the former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, comedian Maeve Higgins, and producer Thimali Kodikara. The podcast is broadly centered on harnessing the powers of women in leadership to lead the energy transition and heal environmental devastation. Each episode focuses on a different issue to do with the transition.

The Double Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership

The “double bind” is a concept first articulated by scientist & philosopher Gregory Bateson, and it refers to a no-win scenario in which a problem’s solution only perpetuates the problem. The double bind dilemma for women in leadership refers to the disproportionate expectation that women should be warm & nice in their dealings with others, including subordinates, at all times. At the same time, women are expected to overperform on toughness & competence. The problem is that these qualities are often perceived as the opposite of warmth & kindness. Therefore, women in leadership are expected to be two contrasting things at once.

Many people have attempted to engage with the double bind dilemma that women in leadership face. Many have argued about the extent to which women should adapt to or challenge the unequal expectations placed upon them. The most powerful solution may be quite difficult. It involves educating the workforce on issues of gender & leadership in order to counteract the expectations that create the double bind in the first place.


For as long as there has been “Man,” there have been women in leadership. The domination of social, professional, and governmental life by one gender that has dominated much of recent history has been an anomaly. Thankfully, this particular arc of human history does seem to be bending toward justice. There is an increasing proportion of women in leadership roles in society today.

However, the examples of a few powerful women should not disguise that they are the exception, rather than the rule. The glass ceiling still presents an unjust obstacle. The problem is bigger than any of us. It demands education, mutual aid, and solidarity. It’s up to us to use the resources available to educate ourselves on issues of women in leadership. Not only that, but to share that education with the people and systems around us. Further, we must establish networks of mutual support and collaboration in order to empower those among us who have been disempowered.

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Filed Under: Corporate Training, Leadership & Management