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What is holding women back and what can be done about it?

July 28, 2023
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What is holding women back and what can be done about it?

By Lacy Schoen

Having been involved in the advancement of women for many years, I’ve spent a good amount of time educating myself via research on unconscious bias, female resilience, early childhood socialization, hiring studies, communication differences between men and women, group dynamics, and other topics in an effort to understand how we can help working women achieve equity in the workforce. To have a measurable impact, we have to address the real obstacles that women face in their efforts to advance their careers. Then we have to teach women how to overcome those obstacles with effective strategies.

This has been a mind-expanding effort. There’s a ton of research, scientific studies, and anecdotal information out there from credible sources. But not one source puts it all together to say – “This is why women have problems advancing.” To be fair, the issue is involved. There are many facets to why women have a hard time advancing in the same numbers as their male counterparts. But what I can say is that the barriers seem to fall into two broad categories – internal barriers and external barriers.

When we talk about internal barriers, we are talking about the things women tend to do that hold themselves back. This is well documented. For example, most women tend to refrain from applying for a promotion unless they meet 100% of the qualifications. Men will typically apply when they meet 60% of the qualifications. That’s an internal barrier that has to do with the way a woman typically thinks about herself versus her male counterparts. We can speculate where that comes from. A lot of our differences come from early childhood socialization as well as societal factors and media. But from a practical standpoint, there’s a myriad of research that shows women tend to underestimate themselves. Studies show that men tend to slightly overestimate their value, while women tend to slightly understate their value. Other studies show that men tend to take the credit for their successes themselves, while women tend to state their successes as the result of the team – even when that’s not the case. This difference alone manifests as a significant barrier for women as they hold themselves back from applying for higher level positions, even though they are fully capable of excelling in these positions.

Another internal barrier for women is confidence. It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal until you read the unconscious bias research that reveals that “confidence is read as competence.” This has been studied and proven in the hiring process. If a woman comes off as timid or hesitant in an interview, it is interpreted as a lack of competence. While at the same time, a man may speak confidently, even if he doesn’t have the qualifications. The unconscious bias research shows that he will be viewed as highly competent.

There are many more internal barriers for women, but these two revolving around confidence and taking initiative to apply for a promotion are significant and demonstrate two internal barriers that hold women back. These barriers keep highly talented women from contributing at a higher level in the workforce. How can we help women overcome these barriers? Awareness is a good start. For many working women, to find out that they are a statistic…that most women are holding themselves back in the Same. Exact. Way. …is not only healing but an eye-opening jolt. When they realize they are mentally stacking the deck against themselves, they realize it’s not that they aren’t qualified – it’s that they are hard-wired to underestimate themselves. Often this knowledge, coupled with connection with other women overcoming the same mindset are the impetus for women to get past the negative self-talk and apply for that promotion. This is part of the work we do in the Women Rising Leadership Academy. Then we give her the tools she needs to build self-confidence – to recognize it as a skill that needs to be developed, not a personality trait that comes naturally, and you’ve created a lot more initiative in this woman to advance herself.

It bears mentioning that it has been studied and proven that women are every bit as smart as their male counterparts. So, to say that “We are gender blind and hire the most qualified” and find that the “most qualified” are all men when the candidate pool included just as many women is just a false sense of security. Go back to the prior point of “confidence being read as competence,” and we can now see that a hiring panel will most likely find a more confident candidate (a man) more qualified. We have to start re-evaluating how we view leadership. Charisma and confidence, while attractive, can actually be a deterrent to hiring the most qualified. It’s an unconscious bias that even I have allowed to slip me up in the hiring process. Awareness helps. Then we need to put practices in place to make sure we are assessing competence beyond the exterior presentation of a candidate.

Another unconscious bias in hiring is this – men tend to be hired for potential. Women tend to be hired for experience. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that one is forward looking and the other backward looking. When you are hiring, which direction are you looking? You’re looking forward toward what the candidate can do for the future of the organization. This is an unconscious bias that has been found in many hiring processes. This is why I always tell my female mentees – if the interviewer keeps asking you for your experience, share it with them, but then pivot and take as much time sharing how your experience translates into your potential with that company. What value can you bring to the table? What strategies would you implement? It’s the question that she needs to answer, even though it is not asked – so that she can get the hiring panel to focus on her potential, so she can have a fair shot. Given the research, it’s unlikely the hiring panel will ask on their own, so she has to do it for herself. This is part of what we teach in Women Rising Leadership Academy.

So, we’ve talked about two internal and two external barriers that hold women back. For each of them, there are actionable and proven strategies that help women take matters into their own hands to start chipping away at the barriers they face to their advancement. There are many more barriers to address, like male/female communication differences (we are literally speaking different verbal and body languages), salary negotiation (men ask, women don’t), biological differences (women birth children, men don’t), all of which have significant implications in the workplace. We touch on a lot of these topics in the Women Rising Leadership Academy because understanding differences and gaining the tools and strategies to neutralize them is a big part of the solution. It’s also good leadership.

This issue is not just something that all of us should care about because “it’s the right thing to do.” The truth is, all organizations are better with gender balance throughout their leadership ranks. As it turns out, (and yes, the studies show this) males and females make a pretty darn good team when we understand that truly great leadership involves both male and female traits. It’s really about taking advantage of all the leadership traits we need at the top. Because let’s face it, in general, women do tend to handle situations differently than men.  What lies on the other side of this issue when we have achieved gender equity, is that we will have created more profitable, efficient, and high-functioning organizations. And that’s something I think everyone can get behind.

To learn more about the Women Rising Leadership Academy, visit  Applications for the next Academy are being accepted through September 8, 2023.


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