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October « 2009 « Diversity in Leadership

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The Top 5 Challenges Faced by Female Managers

The fact that women tend to face more obstacles on their way up the career ladder has been well-established. In order to understand how to better help women advance, Ruderman and Ohlott (2002) researched the unique challenges women face as they develop as managers and leaders. After conducting 61 interviews and collecting 276 surveys, they discovered 5 themes characterizing the challenges facing female managers:


1.     Authenticity – The first of the 5 unique developmental needs they identified is authenticity. Women reported struggling with being able to feel like themselves in leadership roles in which they might have felt like they had to act against deeply held values. For instance, women tend to value compassion more highly than do men, which can be in direct conflict with a highly competitive culture. Therefore, to be successful in that culture, women may have to act against their own deeply held values. As explained by Eagly and Carli (2007), “men, more than women, can succeed merely by ‘being themselves’ because they match other people’s concepts of what leaders are like. Women face more complexity because they initially don’t seem as leader-like to others and may also have somewhat different values and attitudes than most of their male colleagues” (p. 173).

2.     Wholeness – The research also suggests that achieving a “whole” life, or a life characterized by a balance between work and non-work roles, was a significant theme for the managers in the study. The business world makes balancing both work and non-work roles difficult, and as women tend to carry more caregiving responsibilities, this tends to be more of an issue for women than for men. It is important to remember that leadership development takes place within this context.

3.     Self-clarity – Women expressed a need to understand others’ reactions to them. While attaining accurate feedback is necessary for anyone working in an organization, it can feel particularly difficult to receive for women due to the stereotypes and role expectations they often face in organizations. There is extensive research showing that women are often held to different (arguably higher) standards of performance than men. For instance, research shows that women who are promoted often have higher performance ratings than men who are promoted (Lyness & Heilman, 2005). Other research shows that that women are penalized in their performance evaluations when they do not perform behaviors that are considered “above and beyond” for their male colleagues (e.g., staying after hours to help a colleague reach his or her deadline). People in organizations also often react negatively to women who are in management positions, because they see their assertive behavior as being counter to their social roles as women (according to society, women are supposed to be caring and supportive of others). Thus, women not only have trouble determining what is expected of them in their roles, but they also have difficulty determining what feedback they receive is biased and what feedback they receive is accurate. This makes it very difficult for women to develop a clear sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

4.     Connection – Women also expressed a need for connection, or the need for close relationships with others, something they felt was often hampered by organizational life. Not only does time spent at work hurt the development of close relationships, but the competitive nature of organizations makes the development of close relationships at work difficult. Almost all of the women in the study reported feeling dissatisfied with the number of close relationships in their life. In addition, the researchers argue that “a sense of connection to other people is the central organizing force in women’s development,” meaning that women, often more so than men, need to feel connected to others in order to grow.

5.     Agency – Agency has been identified as another developmental need for women. As agency refers to behaviors such as assertiveness and exerting power over others, it is typically associated with leadership. However, it is also typically associated with masculinity, which often leads to negative reactions towards women engaging in agentic behaviors. Therefore, learning to reconcile the need to engage in agentic behaviors while tempering the negative reactions of others is an important developmental challenge for women.  In fact, Eagly and Carli (2007) argue that the key is learning to engage in agentic and communal (associated with nurturing and caring for others – associated with the need for connection) behaviors at the same time. 


Many organizations (e.g., General Electric and Deloitte & Touche USA) implement women’s initiatives to help advance more women into upper management. These initiatives generally include Work-Family balance benefits, which have undoubtedly helped women achieve greater levels of Wholeness. Women’s networking groups are also becoming a popular component of successful women’s initiatives. As mentioned in Susan’s post, Turknett’s Women in Leadership (WIL) program, which is an example of an external women’s networking group, is essentially a ‘group mentoring” forum. By providing leadership role models as speakers, as well as the opportunity to connect with other female leaders who have often experienced similar challenges, women can discuss issues around agency, connection, and self clarity. These programs seem like a great way to help move more women up the career ladder. More research is needed, though, to help determine what components of the programs are most helpful, and exactly how they help women grow. This will help organizations design the most effective programs possible in the future, and hopefully help close the gendered leadership gap.

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