Challenges Faced by Women in Leadership

A lot of us grew up reading about, watching, and looking up to strong female lead characters in books and movies. Whether it was Jo March moving heaven and earth to make sure her family was provided for, or whether it was dystopian fictional female characters leading revolutions against tyrannical governments, women have served as inspirations, as leaders to look up to and to emulate.

Although in many ways things have improved a great deal since Louisa May Alcott first breathed life into Jo March’s character, there’s a lot that still remains to be rectified. The polling booths may be open to women, the universities may no longer be discriminating on the basis of sex, and the big companies may order cupcakes to celebrate the eighth of March— but there are still biases that simmer beneath the surface, there are still policies that require rewriting, there are still battles that are fought every day by women in positions of power, who are seen as threats to the egos of men.

The suffragettes of today’s age have new battles to fight, especially in workplaces where challenges are many, and solutions are few.

Challenges Faced by Women

Although women contribute enormously to the global workforce, we live in a society largely designed to cater to the needs and egos of men. This means that, very often, when considered for promotions and positions farther up in the hierarchy, men are often given preference over women—and this can rarely be attributed to a lack of talent, or qualifications. This underrepresentation of women in leadership positions is worse when it comes to women of colour, who make up only 17% of entry-level roles, and 4% of C-suite positions. This highlights the problem of racial discrimination in workplaces, which adds to the already prevailing challenges women face in workplaces.

Maternity discrimination is yet another challenge faced by women in the workplace, where pregnant women are fired, not hired, or discriminated against at the workplace, on the basis of their pregnancy. This type of discrimination can come in the form of targeted verbal harassment towards pregnant women, by their co-workers, senior officials, or others at the workplace. It also includes pregnant women being forced to take time off (paid or unpaid), having their working hours reduced by their superiors, having their benefits changed, or having promotions refused to her, on the basis of their being pregnant.

This is a topic that’s extremely close to my heart as I recently entered the world of motherhood and hear first hand the struggles women are facing. 

Women in workplaces are also often forced to endure extremely sexist comments, under the guise of jokes and banter. Many women who show any sign of anger, in situations where it is completely warranted and justified, or maybe in situations where she is speaking out against something, will almost definitely have had to contend with a snarky “I guess it’s that time of the month,” by a male co-worker. Women have had their rights denied and their complaints dismissed for “general female hysteria”. To make matters worse, when they actually do request sick leave when they are menstruating, they can sometimes be met with mockery as some men seem to think of it simply as an excuse to skip work!

While all these challenges can, and often do hamper women’s passion and enthusiasm for their jobs, perhaps the most significant challenge comes in the form of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favours and comments, jokes, acts, or other verbal or physical conduct that is of a sexual nature or directed at employees based on their sex. While it is true that sexual harassment affects both men and women in the workplace, a survey reported by Refinery29 also showed that women are almost twice as likely as men to experience sexual harassment, with 41% of women being affected, as opposed to 26% of men.

Tall Poppy Syndrome

A consequence of all the misogyny that continues to perpetuate the challenges detailed above, Tall Poppy Syndrome is yet another silent systemic attack that continues to impact women in the workplace ( and it can be from all genders)>

On reflection, have you ever felt like you are criticised, cut down, and disparaged, for your achievements in the workplace, rather than being celebrated for them? If you get promoted, do you have to deal with snide comments and resentment, rather than cheers and positive affirmations congratulating you on your performance?

You may be experiencing what is referred to as Tall Poppy Syndrome, which is when people—commonly women—, are attacked, disliked, criticised, resented, or cut down because of their achievements and/or success.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is based on the idea that poppies should all grow together at the same pace and height. Therefore, if one of the poppies becomes taller than the rest, it’ll be cut down to the same height as the rest.

A groundbreaking 2018 study shows that over 87% of 1,501 women from various industries and companies had to deal with colleagues and superiors undermining their work achievements. About 81% also claimed they experienced hostility and punishment due to their success.

Widespread Burnout

Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the alarming amount and degree of challenges they face, there have been increasing reports of burnout from women in the workplace. A  study by Forbes reports a widespread burnout pandemic in 2022, with around 53% of women saying their stress levels were higher than they were a year ago, and almost half feeling burnt out.

The most recent example of a woman in leadership handing in her resignation citing reasons of burnout is New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern— an exemplary leader, and a woman with skill and vision, and unparalleled wisdom and experience when it comes to navigating the politics and people that come with a position of power.

Who better to learn from, than a woman who awed the world through her masterful handling of everything from a pandemic to a public shooting? She was not only a leader. She was an Upstander, practicing the core qualities of Empathy, Ethics, and Equality.

She embodied what it meant to follow the five steps to becoming an upstander: look, listen, learn, lead, and love.

Her observation of human suffering, her willingness to listen to the needs of others and act accordingly, her ability to acknowledge her weaknesses and learn from them, her remarkable leadership even in times of extreme crisis, and most importantly, the driving force behind her leadership: her love for her people. All of this, in the end, is what made her rise above the challenges she faced at every turn of her political career, as a politician, and as a woman in leadership.

As Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation, she said that she “no longer had enough in the tank” to do the job. This willingness to acknowledge what others might mistakenly perceive as a weakness is perhaps one of her greatest strengths.

As Ardern resigns, she leaves behind lessons for us all, especially for women aspiring for positions of leadership in the workplace.

Maybe you are that woman, work alongside that woman or support them within your family.

If we can work towards being Upstanders, we can create an environment that fosters enthusiasm among employees in the workplace, that has people rooting for each other’s successes—whatever the gender. 

We can be the Upstanders who stand up against injustices in the workplace, who stand up for ourselves and our co-workers in spaces where standing up is seldom done— we can be the Jo March of our generation, the upstanders, the leaders to look up to, and emulate. 

Please check out my most recent book ‘The Upstander Leader’ 

You will also love ‘The Upstand Academy”