How Women Make Progress in the Workplace Despite Systemic Barriers

Systemic barriers persist in women’s path to leadership. Making progress under these tough conditions requires a new, empowered mindset.
Karen Calder
June 3, 2019

You have seen the statistics many times: women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles. Despite the numerous efforts to push for change, progress can feel a little slow. So what are women to do in the face of the many systemic barriers, which are proving to be quite sturdy? Get their hands on some strategies to put themselves in the strongest possible position to navigate successfully the challenging road to leadership.

Systemic barriers continue to set women back

Systemic barriers within and outside of the workplace make the path to becoming a leader more challenging for women than for men. These barriers are numerous and they typically require large-scale change. Consider the report produced by the Standing Committee on the Status of Women within Canada’s House of Commons, which looked at a number of systemic factors that set women back relative to men, such as the lack of sponsorship in the workplace, additional unpaid work, and persistent discrimination. The Committee made 86 recommendations for the federal government on changes that need to be made to eliminate these obstacles. The reality is that change of that magnitude will not be implemented overnight.

The way women have been socialized is not helping

Be nice. Don’t take credit for accomplishments. Play it safe. Don’t speak up. Don’t boast about your achievements. Don’t push back. Shrink to fit the requirements. Most girls hear this feedback consistently as they are growing up, and it becomes the backbone of women’s presence in the workplace. Women are socialized to underestimate their self-worth, and it is not helpful for making progress when the cards are already stacked against women in the workplace.

The impact of this mindset is tangible, as reported in a recent survey:

  • Mid-career, women are 16% more likely than men to question their ability to be successful
  • They are 10% less likely than men to advocate for themselves in the workplace.
  • They are 10% less likely to make risky decisions with respect to their career, avoiding those that could result in major upside or downside consequences

When the environment is filled with obstacles that already make it hard for women to progress, this mindset it setting them further back. So, what to do?

Breaking through the limits of socialized behaviors

The good news is that this socialized mindset is within women’s control. Women can change the story they tell themselves and move into a stronger stance for moving forward in the face of systemic barriers.

Set realistic expectations

Striving towards perfectionism is not doing women any favors because it discourages risk-taking and promotes unhealthy self-criticism. Instead, set realistic expectations, recognize that you might make mistakes, and appreciate that you will learn in the process. Take, for example, Reshma Saujani, CEO of Girls Who Code, whose conscious effort to move away from perfectionism has enabled her to impact the future of tens of thousands of girls.

Believe you can

Whatever it is that you want to accomplish, start with the assumption that you can. You may not have the skills to accomplish it right now, but “right now” is very different from “ever”. If you do not feel ready, make a plan for how to get yourself from “can’t right now” to “can”.

Whatever it is that you want to accomplish, start with the assumption that you can. You may not have the skills to accomplish it right now, but “right now” is very different from “ever”. If you do not feel ready, make a plan for how to get yourself from “can’t right now” to “can”.

Shift to authenticity

Declare your aspirations and hold true to them, even if it means making some difficult decisions. For example, in a recent survey of millenial women, 31% reported that their top reason for leaving an employer was a lack of opportunities for career progression.

Redefine self-worth

Women have been socialized to diminish their self-worth and to rely on others to define it. Take control over your definition of yourself and connect it to your values and goals, not others’ opinions or social norms.

Be resilient

Persevere in the face of adversity. Believe that the contribution that you bring to the table is worth more than the barriers you face. Many women who were the first to achieve a particular milestone faced immense difficulties, but their confidence in the value that they brought helped them stay resilient.

Celebrate milestones

Do not underestimate what you have achieved. Take time to recognize the progress you are making, which will build your resilience and energize you to move forward.

Taking these steps requires diligence, but it can translate into an empowering mindset shift. It can help women maximize their impact and get to their goals when the odds are not in their favor. Will this mindset shift remove systemic barriers? No, those barriers will take long-term large-scale change. In the meantime, an empowered mindset will help women make more progress, so they can get to where they want to be.


Karen Calder is an Associate Consultant at Verity International. She is a former executive at Walmart Canada who has dedicated her professional life to developing and empowering women.

Karen is the facilitator of Women on the Rise, a two-day program at theLEADhub by Verity that helps women establish their leadership presence, gain courage to take bold action, and find their voice. Contact us to learn more about this truly transformational and empowering experience for female leaders.

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