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Shattering Glass Ceilings: Women in Leadership Positions

Women have a long history of underrepresentation in leadership positions, even though they possess many of the qualities and skills necessary to be successful in this role. Women have been proven to be more compassionate, detail-oriented, and collaborative than their male counterparts.

Overcoming Prejudices: The Obstacles Women Face in the Workplace

While women make up nearly half the workforce globally, they face a variety of obstacles in the professional environment. Many of these issues are the effects of centuries of systemic oppression through traditions and internalized prejudices.

“Work-life balance” has become a buzzword in recent years as individuals struggle to find equilibrium in their personal and professional lives. However, women disproportionately grapple with striking this balance. Research shows that women are often responsible for the majority of domestic responsibilities in their personal lives, as opposed to their male counterparts.ii This creates a double burden of paid and unpaid labor, causing problems related to personal well-being, productivity, and relationships.

The #MeToo movement brought visibility to the sexual harassment and assault that women primarily face in the workplace. Between 25% and 80% of women have experienced workplace sexual assault. Studies also find that sexual harassment usually is perpetrated by men in positions of authority. Sexual harassment and assault can cause a variety of consequences for victims, including mental and physical health decline, career stagnation, unemployment, and lower salaries.iii

It has been established that women have fewer opportunities for professional advancement. Women, on average, receive higher performance ratings than men but lower potential ratings. This results in a 14% lower likelihood of women being promoted versus their male counterparts.iv Women are not usually perceived as natural leaders and therefore must work harder to be recognized and included in male-dominated spaces.

Regardless of progress, the gender pay gap has remained relatively stable within the last 15 years, with women earning 84% of what men earn.v This means that women would have to work an extra 42 days yearly to earn what men do for the same work. Unequal pay is one of the most significant issues that women face in the global workplace.

The workforce is historically male-dominated, meaning women have fewer professional role models. This can make it difficult for women to find inspiration, motivation, and confidence to pursue their interests. This could help explain why women are so underrepresented in STEM fields.

Representation Matters: The Benefits of Empowering Women in the Workplace

Higher rates of representation in leadership are associated with a variety of benefits for organizations. Greater gender equity contributes to wider economic benefits, increased productivity, and improved development This means that gender representation is beneficial for everyone, not just women. There are many research-backed theories to explain why gender representation optimizes organizations.

Representation makes us smarter. Diverse people mean diverse perspectives, leading to better problem-solving.vii Considerations that may be overlooked by one group might be significant with a different perspective.

Studies show that women are more inclined to collaborate with others.viii In business, this translates to females in leadership being better at making deals with stakeholders and supporting colleagues.

Teams with female managers have higher rates of employee engagement. Employees reported that female managers support them at significantly higher rates by providing emotional support, checking in on their well-being, ensuring that workloads are manageable, helping to balance the work-life dynamic, and helping mitigate burnout and employee turnover.

The bottom line is that gender diverse organizations are more profitable. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability.ix Researchers do not know the exact reasons, but studies repeatedly show this correlation.

Fixing the Broken Rung: Strategies to Help Women Take Charge in Leadership Roles

Now we are faced with a paradox: women face many obstacles in achieving leadership roles, but women in leadership roles benefit organizations. In order to continue making progress and ensuring that everyone is living up to their full potential, it is important to implement various strategies for equality.

Be aware of stereotypes and their implications. Leaders cannot control the stereotypes and assumptions that employees bring to the organization, but they can influence company culture and how they are dealt with.

Encourage growth. There is an often-referenced statistic saying that men will apply for a position of they meet 60% of the requirements for, while women will apply only if they meet 100% of the requirements. Offering mentorship opportunities not only creates role models but also helps unleash the full potential of everyone through improving self-confidence.

Create an environment of low tolerance for interruptions. Studies demonstrate that men tend to interrupt more than women.x This can lead women to feel uncomfortable speaking in male-dominated spaces and like their voices are not heard, in turn contributing to them being perceived as incapable leaders. Establishing meeting protocols ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to share their ideas.

Create policies for work-life balance. 74.95% of women in the workforce are mothers with children under the age of 18.xi Family responsibilities can make women appear less committed to their careers. Creating flexible work options and proper work-life boundaries can benefit and create a healthier work environment for everyone.

Lastly, make sure to offer equal opportunities. While there is no single story of women in the workplace, there are some shared obstacles. When an opportunity for advancement arises, ensure that it is offered to all capable employees. Supporting women in leadership creates equality and growth for everyone. Every organization has the opportunity to expand and thrive by choosing to support and empower their female leaders.

Receive a Certificate in Women in Leadership from MIT Professional Education

Become a modern-day leader with the latest practices of effective leadership. Optimize your work environment and unleash the full potential of everyone. MIT Professional Education’s Women in Leadership: Becoming an Agent of Change course presents an encompassing and practical approach to leadership, communication, and management skills to create more resilient organizations. You will:

  • Understand what recent research tells us about the most effective approaches to leadership in the 21st-century era.
  • Acknowledge, understand, and address the challenges facing women who seek leadership roles.
  • Provide practical strategies and tactics to achieve success as a leader in any organizational context.
  • Define sociological concepts with a lens on the professional sphere, such as understanding the nuances of intersectionality in recruiting and retaining, management of sexism and discrimination in the workplace, and confrontations of gender and racial stereotypes.
  • Deconstruct the ethos of leadership, by putting into practice strategies such as negotiation, cultivating a strong leadership persona, public speaking skills, and research-backed models of positive reinforcement

This course is taught by an ensemble of renowned MIT experts in leadership, communication, and STEM, including lead instructors Prof. Edward Schaippa and Dr. David Niño, contributing instructors from the MIT School of Engineering, Dr. Kara Blackburn, Prof. Kerri Cahoy, and Prof. Kristala L. Jones Prather, and Prof. Deborah Ancona of the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

Find out more about other courses at MIT Professional Education and boost your career.


i Zippia. “25 Women In Leadership Statistics [2023]: Facts On The Gender Gap In Corporate And Political Leadership” Nov. 9, 2022,
ii Williams, C. L. (2018). The Gendered Discourse of Work-Family Balance in the Oil and Gas Industry. Social Currents, 5(2), 120-139.
iii Shaw, E., Hegewisch, A., Phil, M., & Hess, C. (2018). Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs. Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
iv Benson, A., Li, D., & Shue, K. (2022). “Potential” and the Gender Promotion Gap. Journal of Economic Literature.
v Barroso, A., & Brown, A. (2022, June 8). Gender pay gap in U.S. held steady in 2020. Pew Research Center. Retrieved February 22, 2023, from
vi World Bank Group Gender. (2022, October 11). The World Bank In Gender: Overview. World Bank. Retrieved February 22, 2023, from
vii Phillips, K. W. (2014). How Diversity Works. Scientific American, 311(4), 42-44.
viii Thöni, C., Volk, S., & Cortina, J. M. (2021). Greater Male Variability in Cooperation: Meta-Analytic Evidence for an Evolutionary Perspective.
Psychological Science, 32(1), 50-63.
ix ixon-Fyle, S., Vivian Hunt, D., Dolan, K., & Prince, S. (2020, May). Diversity wins: How inclusion matters. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from
x James, D., & Clarke, S. (1993). Women, men, and interruptions: A critical review. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Gender and conversational interaction (pp. 231–280). Oxford University Press.
xi Huang, J., Krivkovich, I., Yee, L., & Zanoschi, D. (2022, October 18). Women in the workplace 2022. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from

Clara Piloto
Director of Global Programs, Director of Digital Plus Programs
MIT Professional Education
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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