Challenges for Female Senior-Level Executives and What it Takes to be Successful

It’s long been known that women, on average, earn less than their male counterparts. As of 2020, women’s annual earnings were 82.3% of men’s, and the gap is wider for women of color, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition to systemic compensation inequities, working women also struggle to overcome the lack of options for essential family care, made even more difficult with the pandemic, and numerous other barriers to success.

What other barriers remain for female executives? Here are some of the most prevalent: lack of leadership development training, lack of mentoring or sponsorship opportunities with key allies, lack of access to/visibility within key and influential networks, stereotyping, daily microaggressions, shortage of role models, lack of robust employer DEI initiatives and reluctance to ask for promotions. More exist and, in aggregate, one can easily understand why women are still striving to achieve parity with men at the executive levels of organizations.

The encouraging news is that the percent of women in senior management has increased globally, reaching 29% by 2020. And in the U.S., a record high number of women led Fortune 500 companies by 2020 but this only equates to one of every 14 such companies being run by a female CEO. Female representation on corporate boards in the U.S. increased from 20.3% in 2016 to 26.1% in 2019. Also in 2019, the percentage of C-Suite women was 21% (an anemic 4% for women of color).

Thankfully, there are pathways to success. Here are insights for women seeking executive level roles to consider:

1. Do great work. Be a high performer and create value for your organization. And, make sure key decision-makers are aware of what you bring to the table and demonstrate on a daily basis. Establish and maintain strong credibility through high performance.

2. Be confident and take risks. Competence and confidence in oneself, including in one’s ability to lead, instill trust and earn respect – stretching beyond what you thought you were capable of, and being fearless when doing so. Don’t fear failure.

3. Secure a key executive mentor or sponsor. Having a high-level mentor is crucial. It’s also important to take seriously the goals identified by the higher-level executive. One must be focused on creating results for the mentor and being responsible to the organization. This is a key piece in earning more opportunities to excel and take on stretch assignments.

4. Get an education. This is a powerful factor in building confidence in female executives. Not only does having the right creds provide a sense of readiness for the work, but it also provides a strong sense of intellectual breadth and preparedness.

5. Focus on organizational goals. Understand the big picture. It is important for those in the middle ranks to keep their attention on the overall organization’s goals, results and vision in order to move up.

6. Be passionate about your work. Make sure you are doing something you are passionate about. This helps you stay focused, energized and engaged – keys to being a high performer long term.

7. Support DEI efforts within your organization. If your organization does not have robust DEI programming, raise the topic with key decision-makers. If it does, make sure you support the efforts – and help drive positive change that helps the entire organization move forward.