How You Can Overcome the Top Barriers Keeping Women from Advancing

janewoodsContributed by Jane C. Woods, a personal development specialist

When I was employed in a management role, I coached and mentored many young women coming through my organisation. I’m now a professional coach working with senior and executive women. The questions and issues have not changed significantly over the years, although of course, everyone is unique and bring their own unique set of circumstances to bear.

A 2004 Catalyst survey found that the top two barriers that hold women back from top positions are:

  • Lack of significant general management or line experience (47%)
  • Exclusion from informal networks (41%)

These broadly correspond with the issues I hear when coaching executive women. What follows is some of the coaching advice I have shared with executive women on how to overcome these challenges.

Going the Extra Mile: Overcome a Lack of Experience

One of my regular coaching questions is “how many times have you asked about a secondment, or applied for temporary jobs, or simply asked to shadow someone?”. Or “Does your current line manager know you are looking to advance?”. It sounds basic stuff, but you’d be amazed at how often we women make assumptions in this area. You often need to make the first step in asking for experience.

If you are in a very traditional organisation where male attitudes dominate and women do not get promotion opportunities (however covert/overt,) you have some choices to make:

A) You can challenge the status quo, using whatever means are comfortable and appropriate for you and your circumstances.

B) You can try and moderate your behaviour to the cultural norms and not rock the boat, i.e. behave like a man to get on, although, as you aren’t actually a man, you may never be good enough at it.

C) You can take what you can from the experience, plan to leave and go somewhere you can really flourish! They don’t deserve you.

A – If you choose A, then make some alliances now, either in or out of the organisation. You may choose a legal challenge in which case you need serious legal representation, will need to collect evidence, and brace yourself for some difficult times ahead. Or you may find a way of presenting evidence of discrimination in a way that’s not as adversarial.

For example, in a previous job I had a kindly benevolent Director whose patronising attitude toward women (the vast percentage of all employees) set the tone for all other managers to follow. We were patted on our little heads a lot, always spoken to kindly, but didn’t get any of the top jobs.

As part of a management course, I surveyed all men and women managers at all levels in the organisation, asking the same questions regarding the promotion of each. The survey revealed very clearly that women felt patronised and discriminated against and that many of the men could see this too. The Director couldn’t refute the evidence and within two years the gender balance had changed. Seeing the case presented thus shamed the Director, and gave the women confidence to apply for senior roles.

B – I never recommend B as an option. If you have any lingering doubts as to a woman’s worth in the world of work and commerce, please read ‘Why Women Mean Business’ by Wittenberg-Cox & Maitland. Women bring great gifts to the workplace of equal value to men; never compromise your femininity or underestimate yourself. Women should not have to behave like men to succeed.

C – Sometimes you just have to leave – and you need to realize when this is the case. For example, I recently coached a very senior woman in a central London organisation. I think we were both shocked by the depth of the sexist behaviour which existed. She was the most senior woman in the organisation but it was a struggle every day. After a decent interval she left – for promotion! At her going-away party, the senior men presented her with a pair of bunny ears, an indecent photo, and made reference to her ‘fluffiness.’ No mention was made of her very significant achievements which had led to her becoming one of the most senior woman in her field today! Getting out was better for her, and set an example for other women in the company.

Join the Crowd: Overcome Exclusion from Informal Networks

How can you break into those informal networks keeping women from advancing? Learn to pee standing up! Okay, maybe that was a bit extreme but the principle remains. I once advised a woman, after getting to know her style well, to follow the men to the Gents’ Room next time they decamped en masse. She did so, blithely announcing that she realised she had missed some important information previously so thought she’d better join them! Her point was taken!

Informal networks are hard to break into because they are precisely that, informal. If you’re not in the know you may not even know what you’re missing.

First, try and be explicit about what you are actually missing and the benefit being part of the network confers. You could try an upfront question of your male colleagues as well as using your own observations and those of other women in the organisation. You may also need to be more circumspect if the information isn’t readily available. Personal assistants, for example, still tend primarily to be women and I have always found it worthwhile to be in their good books! Your P.A. talks to other P.A.s….

Second, check whether you can get the benefit through another avenue. For example, if the benefit is raising one’s profile with senior management, is there a more unique way of doing this which will, ironically, give you more benefit than the network which excludes you? For example, the promotion survey I performed at my former company for the management course had an unintended consequence of raising my profile in the organisation, ultimately to my benefit.

If the network meets outside of usual work hours it can be very difficult – golf games, drinks with the boys, etc. Often this means working well outside normal working time. Fewer women than men can do this because women are the primary carers of children and elderly relatives and home makers, as survey after survey shows.

For example, one of the senior women I coached used her lunchtime to shop when her male colleagues were lunching together. So my questions to her were, if it is important to her career to attend at least some of these sessions, why is she taking on the full onus of shopping responsibilities? In her case, an assertive conversation with her partner was required about sharing domestic responsibilities.

Do you need to improve some of your own skills around becoming part of networks? Is it a confidence issue? Do you need some assertiveness training? Once again, don’t assume you are excluded; if you can, ask to go along. The answer will be illuminating whatever it is! The Old Boys clubs do exist and the more women challenge and highlight their existence the better.

Build your own networks and maintain them. This can be in or out of your actual organisation. Once you have determined the benefit you want, it gets easier to know where to look. Statistically, we know most women in senior positions will be in a minority in an organisation. To get support and advice look to networking outside. Use these networks for support and encouragement. And don’t pull up the ladder when you reach the top!

Jane C. Woods is an executive coach in the UK. For more career advice, visit

0 Response

  1. Ben

    The only thing that would matter to me in terms of career potential for a man or woman is if they are effective at their job, and proficient in leadership roles. The worst would be to universally interpret criticism as chauvinism. My generation generally grew up around the attitude that almost always discouraged discrimination on any basis(except perhaps sexual orientation,which is becoming less prevalent as well). Granted that being in my 20s, I’m not very representative of the powers at be at this point so this is entirely hypothetical. But I think it shows a promising trend. My fear is that the pendulum will ‘swing too far’ in the manner that racial attitudes have.
    I feel that someone who values the success of their company will realize that overlooking anyone who may be very talented is bad for business in that it will result in missed opportunities to better there company.