Barriers to women's advancement aren't always obvious

no admittance sign

I came across a great article in the latest Harvard Business Review. Part of the Spotlight on Women in Leadership series, the article by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb is titled “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers”.

I'm not really planning to do a review of the article, but it does raise some interesting issues around why women aren’t achieving the senior executive positions that they wish for. It also struck a chord with me from my own experience.


Issue one: the authors talk about women not having a presence, not looking like the normal (male) leaders that many organisations have.

The article gives an example of a young woman who, though talented and smart, had her career stall in her mid-30s. This lack of progress was attributed to the fact that she had no “presence” — people really didn't see her as being a leader. After being given the support of other women, she was finally recognised for her skills and able to step up to more senior positions.

I run a lot of development workshops for women, and often come across the issue that women don't see themselves as leadership material. They don't apply for leadership positions because they think they don't have the skills necessary or all the key selection criteria covered.


I agree with the article’s authors that having focus is a really important part of the way forward for women. Focus means being clear about the issues that are important to you, about the kinds of things you see will make a difference to you and your team. 

I've seen how much barriers and fear can be overcome when leaders are clear about the task and focus. I often say to people, “This is not all about you — it's about the idea, the issue, the people, the work that's important.”

Second-Generation Bias

The authors of the HBR article explore the idea that often women don't even see that they are being discriminated against. The authors describe this behavior as part of second-generation gender bias.

Some other examples of this second-generation bias — more subtle than the traditional, overt kind of sexism, but still very powerful — are:

  • outdated work experience requirements
  • made to feel that being a female is a liability
  • behind the scenes work not being valued

Examples from police life

Here are a couple of stories from my time in the police that illustrate how women can not see discrimination when it’s happening, or can see it but choose to ignore it.

In the very early days of my career, I worked at Darlinghurst police station. I remember at one point looking back at my rosters and seeing that for about 16 weeks straight I'd worked Fridays and Saturday nights.

I was too busy enjoying myself and learning to really get the picture. But looking back, I think my male bosses felt that policing was too hard for women, and they were hoping that working all those night and afternoon shifts would wear me out. I have to tell you I didn't even really notice that was what was happening — I was enjoying the work and thinking this was a great opportunity.

Sometimes, the behaviour is much more obvious, but women choose to ignore it. A good friend of mine was appointed to the rank of Superintendent, Patrol Commander — the first woman in the New South Wales police to hold that position. She was sent out to a new station and found that the legs on her desk had been cut in half so that sitting behind the desk was like sitting at a table about kids’ size.

My friend didn't say anything about this, just continued to work at the desk.

After a few weeks, she realised that she didn't seem to get the level of mail and correspondence that she thought would have gone with that type of position. She eventually found out the correspondence was being diverted away from her with the hope that she would get in trouble for not having responded appropriately.

My friend’s response was to just get on with the job, they would have to get used to her. She had focus, and eventually succeeded and became the Deputy Commissioner. In her case, she noticed the discrimination but chose to ignore it.

What about you?

Often, when I talk to women about discrimination, they say “that doesn't happen to me”. When I’m more explicit about what I mean by discrimination, the response has often been “oh, that's just the way things are around here.”

If you’re an aspiring woman leader, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Have you ever chosen to ignore discrimination at work? Or have you only realised later that you were being treated differently because of your gender?

Image: Seth Anderson

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