Constantly told to keep their guard up against direct discrimination and the glass ceiling, women in the workplace will need to reassess their fighting tactics. Many obstacles that women face happen much earlier in the career development process and are covert in nature, making leadership positions even more difficult to attain over time.
Even during the first level of management, there are 28 percent more men than women who receive specialist development through use of high-potential groups and talent pools, according to the Development Dimensions International report "Holding Women Back: Troubling Discoveries and Best Practices for Helping Women Succeed."
This number rises to 50 percent at the executive level. Women also receive less support during career transitions than their male colleagues.
"Our data shows that the deck is stacked against women from the beginning," says Anne Howard, chief researcher at DDI. "They're not getting into the kinds of programs that would help develop, teach, and coach them on how to be higher-level leaders. Even if you didn't have that glass ceiling, they wouldn't have had the right experiences."
In fact, several opportunities that women are excluded from, such as high-potential groups, talent pools, and mentorships, have secretive selection processes, thus making it hard for women to even know they exist.
One intuitive finding was that women tended to fare better when they matched the number of men in the management ranks, as opposed to when they were in the minority. Still, even in gender-balanced workplaces, only slightly more than a third of women held senior- or executive-level positions.
Conversely, in male-dominated industries, women tended to fall off the ladder far before the executive level, with only 7 percent reaching the top.
Women were also less likely to receive multinational opportunities, with 21 percent of men receiving these chances as compared with 9 percent of women.
One possible explanation for this gap is that women are assumed to be less willing to relocate because of family obligations. Howard notes that when there is no specific set standard for development opportunities and processes, assumptions and unconscious biases often come into play.
The report recommended a variety of measures for organizations to help women, including making HR policies more family-friendly; recognizing performance equally to help close the pay gap; giving women more mentorships, transitional support, and multinational opportunities to help their development; and formalizing succession planning.
Howard notes that even in a female-dominated industry such as healthcare, when a formal succession plan was in place, it would close to double the odds that women would be in executive roles.
"All these processes that would seem to be unfair to women are not very public," she says. "If you are actually evaluating the differences between men and women and measuring things objectively, the differences are not that great."
At the same time, the onus does not lie with the organization alone.
"Women need to make their intentions known, and not wait for opportunities to be handed to them," notes Howard. "They need to go after them."
The study culled data from 10,006 business leaders (3,807 women and 6,199 men) from 376 organizations and 76 countries around the world. Interestingly enough, the examined data surfaced as an unintended byproduct of DDI's larger leadership development study, Global Leadership Forecast 2008/2009.