Ambitious Women Face More Obstacles than Just Work-Life Balance

Harvard Business Review

For the past year and change, the American conversation about women and leadership has revolved around challenges of work-life balance — which most of the time actually means "work-family balance."

The women we're hearing from — Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg, and the rest — aren't jetting out of the office at 5:30 to train for a marathon or learn Chinese or even just binge-watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. They're leaving "early" to take care of their children. And so we talk about having it all, leaning in, or opting out — and we talk about women who don't make it to the very top of their companies, still, as if it's a personal choice.

The truth is — as many have pointed out — that lots of ambitious people, male and female, make personal choices that take them off the path of leadership. It's also true that women are often gently but firmly nudged off this path more frequently than men, when work and family invariably clash. And that is a problem. Not just for the women, but for the companies missing out on the benefits of diversity and the economy that's not playing with a full talent deck.

But while that is a major obstacle to getting more women into senior roles, it's far from the only — or even the most important one. Yesterday, I interviewed HBR Editor Amy Bernstein about our current issue, which spotlights women in leadership. We agreed that it's time to shift our focus away from issues of work and life, and personal career decisions about "sitting at the table" or "leaving before you leave," to look at some of the institutional barriers that women still face.

One of these challenges is what Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb call "second-generation gender bias." The basic idea: we become leaders iteratively, by taking increasingly challenging roles, learning, and then having our performance affirmed by those around us. For women, this process is often interrupted for a simple reason: when women display leadership behaviors we consider normative in men, we see them as unfeminine. When women act more feminine, we don't see them as leaders.

A previous McKinsey study also identified another barrier: women aren't given as many high-profile, big budget, or international assignments as their male peers. These are the developmental projects that put talented women on the path to the C-Suite.

Work from Catalyst identified another challenge: women aren't sponsored by higher-ups to the same degree that men are, although women do tend to have lots of mentoring relationships. This translates to women receiving lots of well-meant advice, but not a lot of growth roles.

(The depressing list goes on. My colleagues at HBR have pulled together some of the latest research on these and other barriers, along with a curated reading list from HBR's deep archive on this issue.)

It would be disingenuous to say that none of these challenges are related to the joys and burdens of parenting, which still disproportionately fall to women. But increasingly, men share in those joys and burdens too. And the women we're talking about — ambitious mid- to senior-level executives with their eye on the C-Suite — can afford to mitigate a lot of those burdens. So I think it's also disingenuous to portray — as so much of the popular press does — the lack of women at senior levels as evidence of some personal choice on their part.

At the same time, it's not exactly that there's a glass ceiling (or a glass cliff, or a maternal wall): the days of blatant discrimination are (mostly) behind us. Today, it's more like a glass obstacle course of a hundred hard-to-see hurdles.

No wonder so many women seeking leadership roles suffer from bruised shins. No wonder so many of them never make it to the other side.

And yet, as Bernstein was quick to point out, when I asked her if it was depressing that we're still, in 2013, talking about this:

But we can deal with it. We can address it. Nissan addresses it, Avon addresses it, Merck addresses it. Big companies that don't turn easily address it, and they make a difference, and they have seen results. So yes, [gender bias] is bad, and no one want to have to talk about it, but given that it's still out there, isn't it wonderful that we can figure out how to deal with it, how to address it, and how to overcome it. And then we can go on to the next thing.

Here's to overcoming it.

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