Are women the biggest obstacles themselves for career development?

A recently released global survey* about women in senior leadership roles was not a happy reading. The survey confirms that the path to leadership roles is still full of obstacles for women. The amount of women in senior leadership roles has been growing very slowly, and it has even taken steps backwards in some countries. Japan, Germany and India are according to the survey the most difficult places for women to advance into the senior leadership positions.

There is definitely a lot for societies, governments and businesses to do, if women are to become better represented in leadership roles around the world. But to really make a difference, women need to act themselves as well. Actually, I would like to take this even further. What if women themselves are the biggest obstacles in progression to leadership roles?

Think about the last time you learned about a new interesting assignment. What were your first reactions to it? Maybe the first reaction was ‘this is something really interesting’ or ‘I would love to work with that’. But was it so that your following thoughts were like ‘Oh no, I won’t get the job because I’m not experienced/competent/ or whatever enough’? This is the way women typically react to new, challenging opportunities, unfortunately. Compared to men, women tend to have more self-limiting beliefs about their competencies and whether they fulfill the requirements for a new assignment. If women think that they don’t fulfill the requirements of the job 100%, they won’t apply for it. This is not the case with men.

This is where women seem to be good at; thinking about the reasons why she couldn’t get the job anyway. If it’s not the lack of experience or competence, then it is the family reasons why women tend to draw back from new opportunities. What becomes evident from the survey* is that women do still struggle with combining family and work. The less the spouse is supporting in taking care of the family issues, the greater the struggle for a working woman. Putting it bluntly, the choice of the partner is extremely important for women with career ambitions. Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO, raises several times in her book ‘Lean in’, how important the choice of the partner has been for her and argues that “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.”

What women need to do more is to trust themselves and step out of their comfort zone. Taking risks is something women are not good at. But in order to progress into senior leadership roles you need to take risks, dare to try something new, dare to put yourself in a situation of which you have no previous experience. You need to trust that you will learn what is necessary. Taking ‘stretch assignments’ is crucial as it will give women more experience and more visibility in the organisation, which are necessary for career advancement. As Sheryl Sandberg puts it, when an opportunity opens up, you need to ‘put your hand up’ and let it be known that you want to take this new assignment.

What are your internal obstacles? What can you do about it?

*Women in business: The path to leadership, Grant Thornton 2015