Women in Leadership: Preconceptions, Struggles and Perseverance

19th Apr 2023

The gender gap in leadership positions has been discussed for decades. Although some progress has been made towards gender equality in the workforce, women are still underrepresented in top leadership roles. 

“Society has the ability to view us equally, yet we’re not being treated equally.

The reason why I care about this so strongly is that I don’t really think that I grew up being taught to be a feminist, how to advocate for this and how to support it.

I think that’s because of traits I have that aren’t considered particularly feminine - I’m very direct, for example, but that meant I did very well in male-dominated environments like investment banking. I saw it as I managed to survive in an environment that many others couldn’t, but as I matured, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see the problem that society faces, and now I very much am a feminist”.

Molly Johnson-Jones, CEO and co-founder of Flexa

The preconceptions and stereotypes about women’s abilities, coupled with the struggles they face in the workplace, often lead to a lack of women in leadership positions. 

However, women continue to persevere and break through barriers, paving the way for future generations of female leaders.

In our latest webinar with Molly Johnson-Jones, CEO and co-founder of Flexa, Francesca Warner (known as Check), one of Ada Ventures founding partners and Hanna Smith, Director of People at Paddle, we talk about the biggest barriers to gender equality and diversity in senior positions, how this affects hiring, retention and business performance alongside what companies can do to influence change. 

You can check out the full women in leadership webinar below:

The preconceptions and stereotypes of women in leadership

One of the main preconceptions about women in leadership is that they are less competent than men. Yep, still. 

This stereotype stems from a gender bias ingrained in society for generations. As a result, women in leadership positions may be perceived as less decisive or less effective than their male counterparts.

Another common preconception is that women in leadership are overly emotional and cannot handle the pressures of leadership roles. This stereotype is based on the notion that women are inherently more emotional than men, which is not at all supported by scientific evidence. However, this perception can lead to women being excluded from leadership opportunities and being overlooked for promotions.

“Years on, why are we still having that conversation? And why is it still such a thing? We shouldn’t have to justify our existence or our positions in leadership. Our emotions should not be questioned, our passion should not be questioned, and we shouldn’t have to push against that glass ceiling. 

For me, it's about creating a future where our children can have that equality, where it’s not just female equality or male equality. It is true equality. 

That is my utopia. And that's why I do what I do”.

Hanna Smith, Director of People at Paddle

Struggles in the workplace

Women in leadership positions often face unique challenges in the workplace. One of the most significant challenges is the gender pay gap. Women continue to earn less than men in many industries and at all employment levels, making it difficult for women to achieve financial stability or advance in their careers.

“The key drivers are historic bias which is completely embedded in every single touchpoint from when we are at school all the way through to University and through each point of progressions”.

Francesca Warner (known as Check) - Partner at Ada Ventures 
Another challenge women face in leadership is the need for more support and mentorship from people who understand what it’s like to be in their shoes. The lack of women in leadership positions also creates a lack of mentors.. This lack of support can be isolating and make it harder for women to succeed in their careers.

Perseverance and breaking barriers

Despite these challenges, women continue to break through barriers and make strides in leadership roles. Women in leadership positions are not only achieving success but are inspiring future generations of female leaders. Women in leadership positions are now more visible and vocal than ever before, making it easier for young women to envision themselves in those roles too.

Women are also creating their own support systems, such as networking groups, mentorship programs, and leadership development programs. These initiatives are helping to close the gender gap in leadership and ensure that women have the support they need to succeed.

Empowering women in leadership through flexible working

The importance of women in leadership roles and the need for flexible working arrangements are crucial to support career advancement.

“I’m so passionate about the normalisation of flexibility, I didn’t want to justify why I needed flexibility, but I felt like my reason – sometimes not being able to walk because of my Autoimmune disease – wasn't enough compared to, for example, women that have children.

That’s why normalising flexibility is so important that no matter your reason and whether you want to share that, you can still access a flexible working environment where you can thrive”.

Molly Johnson-Jones, CEO and co-founder of Flexa

Flexible working includes working arrangements such as part-time work, job-sharing, remote working, and flexible hours. They allow women to balance their work and family commitments, which can be particularly important for women who still carry the majority of the responsibility of raising children and caring for elderly relatives.

Studies have shown that flexible working can positively impact women's career progression and benefit businesses. For example, a UK government report found that women working part-time are more likely to progress into managerial roles than those who work full-time. Similarly, research by McKinsey & Company found that companies with more diverse leadership teams are more likely to outperform their peers financially.

Despite the benefits of flexible working, there can still be challenges for women in leadership roles if the whole company doesn't commit to a flexible environment. For example, women may be perceived as less committed or capable if they work part-time or have flexible working arrangements. They may also need help from senior leaders to tackle unconscious bias or a lack of support.

To address these challenges, organisations can take steps to create a culture that supports flexible working and promotes gender diversity in leadership. This could include training managers on managing remote or flexible teams, offering flexible working arrangements to all employees, and setting targets for gender diversity in leadership positions.

“Women should be supporting and uplifting one another, and companies should be fostering a culture where women feel that there is enough room at the top without feeling like they need to compete with one another”.

Molly Johnson-Jones, CEO and co-founder of Flexa

The preconceptions, struggles, and perseverance of women in leadership positions illustrate the complex and nuanced issues that must be addressed to achieve gender equality in the workforce. 

While progress has been made, there is still much work to be done to break down the barriers that prevent women from achieving their full potential. By supporting and promoting women in leadership roles, we can create a more equitable and diverse workforce that benefits everyone.