On March 8th, we celebrated International Women’s Day—a day set aside to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality. While we have made great strides in placing women in leadership positions, they still experience challenges that men don’t while attempting to advance their careers in companies, on boards, and in government. The U.S. has a multitude of college-educated women who are qualified to fill leadership positions but yet they still face barriers on their way to the top.     

Challenges women face

According to a recent Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) report, women experience challenges that their male counterparts don’t when attempting to advance their careers.

  • 9 percent of HR professionals describe their organization’s leaders as predominantly women, whereas 50 percent describe their organization’s senior leaders as predominantly men.
  • Only 61 percent of women say their manager encourages them to grow their career compared to 71 percent of men.
  • White female managers (65 percent)—and especially female managers of color (57 percent)— are less likely to feel included in key networks at their organization than male managers of color (68 percent) and white male managers (73 percent).
  • Female managers with caregiving responsibilities (35 percent) are more likely to have experienced a pandemic-related career setback than their male counterparts (26 percent).

Barriers women face

Over the past several decades, women have overcome multiple barriers in the workplace, but still, only hold 21 percent of C-suite positions. Below are some barriers they face that continue to delay and challenge their progress.

  • Structural: When they lack access to established professional networks, women face structural barriers. Women are less likely to be invited to social activities where they can interact with a network of colleagues that can assist them in advancing their careers.
  • Institutional: Gender stereotyping results in unequal and unfair treatment toward women. Institutional barriers—such as stereotypes that portray brilliance as a male trait—hold women back from a wide range of prestigious careers research conducted by scientists at the New York University, the University of Denver, and Harvard University has found.
  • Personal mindset: Women are often their own biggest critics. Lack of confidence and risk aversion frequently hold them back from seeking leadership positions. Because of this, many women have opted to work for private sector, nonprofit, or startup companies where there are more female owners, leaders, and employees.
  • Lifestyle: Caregiver priorities often contribute to the gender gap. When a woman is the primary family breadwinner, she’s usually also the primary caregiver. In comparison, when a man is the primary family breadwinner, he is not usually the primary caregiver, too.

What your organization can do to attract and retain women for leadership roles

A Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends survey found that women are better than—or equal to—men in seven of the eight primary leadership traits (honest, intelligent, hardworking, decisive, ambitious, compassionate, outgoing, and creative). Companies must make intentional efforts to attract and retain women for leadership roles.  

  • Support female leaders: To support the female leaders within your organization, ensure your offering mentorship, professional networking, and development opportunities for all employees.
  • Identify hidden biases: HR leaders must consider every worker qualified for a position and make sure that all skilled employees are offered equal opportunities. 
  • Develop a DEI&B strategy: To attract and retain women talent for leadership roles, be sure to develop a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging strategy that’s data-driven to track your progress and identify gaps.     


Workplace diversity increases creativity, brings unity to teams, and transparently displays equal opportunity. When women thrive in leadership roles, organizations benefit from increased productivity and greater innovation. Companies that don’t work to create an inclusive leadership environment—with equitable opportunities for all employees—will face challenges in attracting and retaining their top female talent. 

This blog was written by TalentRise’s Practice Leader, Executive Search Peter Petrella.