April 5, 2023

10 Biggest Challenges Women Leaders Face & Ways to Overcome Them

By: sanjay sathe

Women leaders increasingly want to work for organizations that prioritize flexibility, professional advancement, and work-life balance. Yet, when their needs aren’t being met, they are deciding to leave the workforce completely. One recent example is YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who is leaving the company to focus on family and well-being. And then there’s Meta’s Chief Business Officer, Marne Levine, who is stepping down after 13 years with the company. These examples reveal a trend showing that women leaders are leaving organizations at the highest rate ever, according to data from the most recent Women in the Workplace study sponsored by Lean In and McKinsey.

10 Biggest Challenges Women Leaders Face & Ways to Overcome Them

One reason for the exodus is that women feel the physical and mental consequences of work-related burnout. Compared with men, women leaders report higher chronic stress and exhaustion rates. In fact, 43% of female executives reported feeling burned out, compared to 31% of men, according to the McKinsey data. 

But those aren’t the only obstacles women face in leadership roles. Let’s examine ten of the biggest challenges women leaders experience and ways to overcome them.

  1. Lack of advancement opportunities
    A study from MIT Sloan found that female employees are 14% less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues, despite outperforming them and being less likely to leave. In addition, even though women received higher performance ratings, they tended to get low potential scores—a measure of how much their managers believed they would develop. Because potential is subjective, it opens the door to bias, and women suffer as a result.

    Research shows that women are less likely to self-promote internally than their male counterparts, limiting their ability to get promoted. So instead, quantify the value you bring and how much effort you put in. By emphasizing how your accomplishments contribute to the company’s mission and objectives, you’ll be more likely to get the raises and promotions you deserve.
  2. Lack of flexibility
    According to recent LinkedIn research, more than half of women say a lack of flexible options at work has pushed them to leave or consider leaving a job. Some would even consider making sacrifices to enjoy more freedom at work. In a FlexJobs survey, 21% of female respondents said they would forfeit vacation time, while 15% said they would give up employer-matching of 401(k) contributions for more flexibility at work.

    To keep women engaged, companies need to offer a variety of options. Some examples include remote/hybrid work, flexible hours and time off, and a four-day workweek. But ultimately, organizations need to listen to their female workforce and determine what alternatives offer the most support to their employees.
  3. Lack of work-life balance
    Working women tend to wear many hats and are more likely than men to assume domestic responsibilities. In fact, according to a study in The Lancet Public Health, women are more likely to spend twice as much time than men caregiving and tackling housework. Combined with a full-time job, all these activities can easily lead women leaders to experience burnout.

    To combat burnout, you need to set healthy boundaries at work. Your approach to boundary setting will depend on your values and work situation. For example, if you are running an early-stage start-up, it’s more of a mission-driven environment where the lines between work and home are easily blurred. The key is to know your priorities and review them regularly to be sure you are true to yourself and those around you. 
  4. Lack of recognition
    Women leaders tend to be overworked and under-recognized. For example, female executives do more to support employee well-being and foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) than male colleagues. Yet, their efforts are not formally rewarded in most companies. Ultimately, spending time and energy on projects that aren’t recognized makes it harder for women to advance.

    If you are a female leader, visibility is critical for career advancement. Instead of remaining in the background, talk to your boss about ways to raise your profile within the organization. For example, look for stretch assignments that allow you to broaden your network and knowledge base. By seeking out connections and cultivating advocates, your work and achievements will be more visible.
  5. Lack of company commitment to DEI
    Women leaders are significantly more likely than male colleagues to leave their jobs because they want to work for a company more committed to DEI. And over the last couple of years, these factors have become more important to female executives. According to the McKinsey study, women are more than 1.5 times as likely as male co-workers to have left a job because they wanted to work for a company more committed to DEI.

    Some ways to implement effective DEI strategies in the workplace include embracing the power of employee resource groups to connect with stakeholders and achieve business objectives. Recruiting and promoting from a diverse slate of candidates is also essential. In addition, consistently train and engage employees on DEI. And finally, make leaders accountable. A DEI strategy is only successful when supported from the top down.
  6. Lack of manager support
    When transitioning to a leadership role, women leaders tend to receive less skills training and feedback, according to a report from DDI. The study found that men are 13% more likely to receive leadership skills training than women and 19% more likely to receive a formal assessment.

    To overcome this challenge, organizations should audit their leadership development processes with gender equity in mind. In addition, there needs to be more transparency regarding metrics so that women understand exactly how they are evaluated. Finally, to help women leaders succeed, organizations should also conduct leadership training, formal assessments, and 360-degree feedback. 
  7. Unequal pay
    In 2022, women earned approximately 82% of what men did, based on a Pew Research Center analysis. One reason is that even though women have increased their presence in executive positions, they are still overrepresented in lower-paying jobs relative to their share of the workforce. Gender discrimination, although difficult to measure, may also contribute to the wage discrepancy.

    Some ways to narrow the pay gap include increasing pay transparency. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, embracing pay transparency can help to narrow the gender pay gap by up to 30%. In addition, employers should regularly conduct pay audits to determine whether women leaders are being compensated fairly. That way, companies can correct the disparity by offering salary increases to employees making less than their colleagues.
  8. Unconscious bias
    Women in leadership roles also suffer from unconscious bias. This scenario can introduce unintentional discrimination and result in poor decision-making. For example, if a hiring team overlooks a woman for an executive role because they think it would be too demanding for her after giving birth, that would be considered unconscious bias.

    Fortunately, there are ways to bring unconscious gender bias to the forefront. One of the most effective ways is to train your staff so employees are empowered to identify and challenge gender bias head-on. Another strategy is labeling the types of biases that can occur. This approach brings them to a conscious level so everyone knows how biases can influence hiring and promotions decisions. Discussing and naming these biases can also go a long way in transforming organizational culture. 
  9. Lack of sponsorship
    A big reason women find it hard to advance is that they aren’t getting the sponsorship they need. According to Wharton Management professor Nancy Rothbard, a sponsor is “a senior-level champion who believes in your potential and is willing to advocate for you to receive that next raise, stretch assignment, or promotion.” On the other hand, a mentor simply provides career advice. Unfortunately, women leaders tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored.

    To change this trend, organizations play a vital role in creating an environment where sponsorship can thrive. First, educate people about sponsorship and build awareness about the practice to help create a dialogue. There can also be a great benefit to linking sponsorship to talent management systems through succession planning or with direct ties to performance reviews. 
  10. Imposter syndrome
    Many successful women question their skills and abilities to the point that they consider themselves frauds. They believe they are in their role by luck or a mistake rather than because of their skills and abilities. It’s called imposter syndrome, and it causes women leaders to fear they don’t belong in the C-suite. 

First, recognize when you are experiencing these feelings to address imposter syndrome. Write down specific instances and what the actual outcome was. By naming your feelings and identifying when they happen, you can handle the negative thoughts and replace them with positive self-talk.


Female leaders demand more from work and are more likely to switch jobs to meet their needs. While they are just as ambitious as their male colleagues, women have unique hurdles to overcome. By leveraging these ten strategies, we will be that much closer to creating an environment where women can work in a way that is sustainable and rewarding. 

Remember to leverage a modern executive search platform to complement your company’s hiring process. By harnessing cutting-edge technology, these platforms will provide you with powerful data-driven insights, enabling you to identify and evaluate candidates effectively.

If you found this post informative, you’ll definitely benefit from reading our post on ​​How to Create a Culture that Supports Work-Life Balance.


1. How can a woman be an effective leader?

A woman can be an effective leader by leveraging her unique capabilities and perspectives. She should exhibit confidence in her expertise, communicate her ideas clearly, and foster a collaborative environment. Empathy is crucial, as it helps in understanding and connecting with team members. Resilience in the face of challenges and a clear vision for the future are also important traits. Promoting inclusivity, practicing integrity, and committing to continuous learning and innovation can further enhance her leadership. By combining these attributes, a woman can lead with effectiveness and inspire those around her.

2. What are the barriers to women’s empowerment?

Achieving gender equality requires tackling deeply entrenched obstacles. Societal expectations and unconscious bias often limit opportunities for women. Lack of access to education, economic resources, and leadership roles further hinders progress.  The need to balance work and personal life adds another layer of complexity. By addressing these challenges, we can create a world where all women can thrive.

3. How is female leadership different?

Female leadership often embodies inclusivity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Women leaders typically foster collaboration, connect deeply with their teams, and are flexible in navigating changes. They also tend to take a holistic view of the impacts of their decisions and prioritize the growth and mentorship of their team members. This approach can result in a nurturing and transformative leadership style.

4. What do female leaders want?

Many female leaders prioritize fostering a culture of innovation, diversity, and collaboration. They champion equal opportunities for all, actively dismantling barriers that hold women back in the workplace. Work-life balance, equal pay, and professional development are often key areas they advocate for. Beyond that, female leaders seek recognition based on their achievements and the chance to make a significant impact on their organizations and society. They lead by example, inspiring future generations of women to confidently pursue leadership roles.

5. Who is a powerful female leader?

The world is filled with inspiring female leaders! If you’re looking for someone who’s making headlines right now, Giorgia Meloni just became the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister in Italy. For a broader perspective, the Forbes list of Most Powerful Women showcases influential figures like Kamala Harris, the US Vice President. But don’t forget about the giants who paved the way. India boasts incredible leaders like Indira Gandhi, the first female Prime Minister, and Ahilyabai Holkar, an 18th century ruler. These are just a few examples – history and the present day are full of remarkable women making a difference!

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