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Women in Leadership: Barriers to Gender Equality in the C-Suite

Woman in Boardroom Looking out Window

While there has been progress toward gender equality in the workforce, women are still underrepresented in senior leadership and executive roles. In this article featuring Ivey alum Pamela Jeffrey, HBA '84, MBA '88, and Ivey Professor Alison Konrad, we explore the benefits of women in leadership and the systemic barriers that we need to address to achieve equality in the boardroom.

Why aren't there more women in senior leadership?

Pamela Jeffery, HBA ’84, MBA ’88, has been smashing barriers since her teens, when she was elected the first female student council president of her high school. As an Ivey HBA student in the early-1980s, almost half her class was female. That number dropped to only 20% when she continued with her Ivey MBA.

After graduation, Jeffery landed a job at Canada’s first female-led lobbying firm. Things went well until she decided to start a family. “I was the first professional at the firm to get pregnant,” says Jeffery. “That was frowned upon, and I lost a promotion.”

When her second child developed a serious health condition as a newborn, Jeffery asked to work a four-day week. “I was told it was full-time, or no time,” she recalls. So, like many women who wish to combine motherhood with professional success, Jeffery left the company and went out on her own.

“I became an entrepreneur, not out of choice, but out of necessity,” she says.

Women remain under-represented at the top

Stories like Jeffery’s remain all too common. While women have made considerable professional gains – now accounting for almost half of the U.S. and Canadian labour force – they still struggle to rise to the highest levels of leadership.

The 2021 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org is the largest study of women in corporate America. It surveyed more than 65,000 employees from 423 participating organizations and found that although 48% of entry-level positions in the United States are held by women, female representation drops with every step up the corporate ladder. By the C-suite, only 24% of positions are occupied by women.

After Jeffery left the corporate world, she built a career championing gender equality and diversity in the workplace.

In 1997, she founded the Women’s Executive Network, which has grown to 22,000 members in Canada, Ireland, and the UK. In 2003, she launched Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Awards. In 2009, she founded the Canadian Board Diversity Council. And most recently, in 2020, she founded The Prosperity Project, a registered charity dedicated to protecting and improving women’s economic security during the Covid-19 pre-recovery, recovery, and post-recovery periods. 

BIPOC women face even greater barriers to leadership

This spring, The Prosperity Project published The Zero Report, its second annual report card on gender diversity. Based on data contributed by 82 Canadian organizations, the report found that women represent 34.2% of Corporate Director roles and 29.2% of Executive Officer roles, with 41.9% of Senior Management roles and 54.8% of Pipeline to Senior Management roles filled by women.  

While this seems like good news, representation of BIPOC women lags far behind - despite a heightened focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). 

The Zero Report found that women of colour hold only 6.2% of women-held Board, Executive, Senior Management and Pipeline positions collectively, with Black women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities and LGBTQ2S+ women each holding less than 1% of women-held senior leadership and pipeline positions, respectively.

And while most Canadian organizations have women who identify as women of colour in senior management and the pipeline to senior management, most have zero Indigenous, Black and/or LGBTQ2S+ women at all four leadership levels.

The situation is no better in the United States. According to the McKinsey / LeanIn.Org study, only 4% of the women who rise to the C-suite identify as women of colour.

Gender parity is good for business

Removing barriers that prevent women from reaching the highest levels of an organization is not just a question of addressing inequities. A large body of research shows that gender diversity in leadership is good for business.

Alison Konrad is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Ivey Business School where she holds the Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management. “I’ve uncovered over 100 large, longitudinal peer-reviewed panel studies of the relationship between board gender diversity and firm performance, and the beneficial findings are strong and clear,” she says.

Not only do firms with gender-diverse boards make more ethical decisions compared to firms with male-only boards, they are more innovative and make better acquisitions that are more likely to enhance firm profitability.

Dr. Konrad says firms with gender-diverse boards invest more in corporate social responsibility. “They perform better in actions such as reducing environmental violations, improving customer safety with swifter product recalls, and using renewable energy in ways that increase firm profits.”

“There is also greater gender equity in firms with gender-diverse boards,” she notes. “And firms with gender-diverse boards achieve all of these beneficial outcomes without damaging financial performance.” In fact, the evidence suggests that firms with gender-diverse boards show slightly better financial performance overall compared to their counterparts with all-male boards.

Women may be better leaders during a crisis, too. The McKinsey / LeanIn.Org study found women were better than their male counterparts at providing emotional support to employees, checking in on the wellbeing of employees, and helping employees navigate work-life challenges and manage burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, what is holding women back?  

Biases and stereotypes

Despite the fact that there is no shortage of qualified women to fill leadership roles, outdated attitudes continue to shut women out of the C-suite.

“Decision-makers at the highest levels in the largest, most-powerful business organizations continue to be men,” Dr. Konrad says. “Men prefer to be led by other men, and show a clear anti-female bias in their ratings of leadership effectiveness.”

Dr. Konrad’s research has found that the first woman to join a previously all-male board finds it hard to have her voice heard. “Interrupting women to shut them down is ‘normal’,” she notes. “This type of culture is a major barrier to the advancement of women into senior leadership positions.”

Adding more women to a board can shift the dynamic. “Having a second woman helps, but there is a clear difference when a third woman joins a board,” Dr. Konrad says. “The culture moves from an aggressive, win-lose debate to a collaborative, give-and-take, problem-solving discussion.”   

Lack of accessible childcare

With workplaces still designed around traditional gender roles, many women find it challenging to balance the demands of family life with a growing career.    

“It’s really, really difficult for women to be fully engaged in the paid workforce if they struggle to get out the door in the morning,” says Jeffery. “There is a trajectory in leadership, and if you miss a rung along the way then you’re going to be left behind.”

The McKinsey / LeanIn.Org study confirms that women continue to face a ‘broken rung’ at the first step up the corporate ladder. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted, leading to fewer women rising to even higher levels.

Lack of access to affordable childcare remains a barrier to women reaching the C-suite, says Jeffery. She commends the Federal Government of Canada’s recent commitment to creating a national childcare program. “The reality is, if women aren’t present at the office, they will be overlooked for that next promotion.”

More mentors, less sponsors

Anyone who has worked in a large organization knows how important mentors and sponsors are to career advancement. But when it comes to building a robust professional network, men still surpass their female counterparts.

“In some cases, women are over-mentored and under-sponsored,” says Jeffery, who explains that mentorship is “when people speak to you” while sponsorship involves “people speaking about you.”

Her observation is backed by evidence that shows people are significantly less likely to acknowledge women’s expertise compared to men’s, says Dr. Konrad.

The American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership Report notes that sponsors are more likely than mentors to provide key contacts and share future career opportunities.

In addition, the report found that networking in the business world still often revolves around ‘masculine’ activities like golf and hunting, and that women with family responsibilities often have limited time for socializing with colleagues and building professional networks outside of working hours.

Closing the leadership gap   

Diversity and inclusion training is a good first step to creating a more equitable workforce, but it’s not enough to disrupt the status quo and create the conditions to reduce bias and allow more women – including BIPOC women, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ2S+women – to take their seat in the C-suite.

“You can’t train bias out of someone in a few hours,” says Jeffery. “It needs to be accompanied by a deliberate focus on examining and overhauling the talent processes around how an organization recruits, how it measures performance, and how it promotes.”  

Dr. Konrad agrees. She cites the example of one company that found their succession plans included almost no women, despite their efforts to increase women’s representation in leadership. “Monitoring these succession plans to ensure that female talent is fully considered and rewarded was necessary to move the needle.”

Setting gender and diversity targets are key to making real change. “Why would you not set goals when it comes to representation at the leadership level when you have goals for every other aspect of your organization?” asks Jeffery.

In short, organizations need to make a conscious choice to do things differently, and like all change, it starts at the top. “Middle-level managers work harder to be inclusive when they know that senior leaders care about diversity and inclusion, and also that senior leaders are examining their actions,” Dr. Konrad notes.

The road ahead 

Today, almost 40% of Ivey’s MBA cohort is female, and this February the Accelerated MBA (AMBA) Class of 2022 will make history as the first graduating class to achieve gender parity.  

So, what advice do Jeffery and Dr. Konrad have for young women just starting out on their careers?

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have what it takes,” says Jeffery. Decide what kind of organization you want to work for, then look at the top. “You’ll learn a lot from organization where there is strong female representation, because those cultures are ones where talent is rewarded.”

“Build yourself a network of supporters to help you strategize your way up the hierarchy, if that’s what you want,” says Dr. Konrad. “Be ready for people to interrupt you when you are speaking, and remember that it is not your fault, it is the other people being impolite.

“Be more prepared than the men around you with data and evidence for your views,” she adds. “Being well-prepared with evidence-based ideas will help you become identified as a high-potential talent. Once you’re recognized, you might advance more quickly than the men around you – and remember, it is because you worked harder and achieved a higher level of excellence than they did.”



This article was written by Nicole Laidler. Nicole is a Western University graduate, BA '03, MA Journalism '04, and an award-winning journalist and content creator. To see what else she’s been writing lately visit

Article Resources:

2021 Women in the Workplace study - McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org
The Prosperity Project – The Zero Report
American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership Report