The Gender Leadership Gap: Are Women the Real Issue That's Holding Women Back?

portrait of two different nationalities teenage girls friends
portrait of two different nationalities teenage girls friends

Despite the many gains women have made in the past few decades, the gender leadership gap remains a huge chasm. Though women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, just 22 percent of the senior managers in the United States are women. Only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs.

The impact of maternity leave and limited childcare has been discussed as a cause of the disparity. Interestingly, though, only about one in five people -- male and female -- surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they believed that was a major reason there aren't more women leaders.

It certainly isn't because women are less qualified, with 57 percent of bachelor's degrees and 62 percent of master's degrees going to women in the United States. And as the Pew Research Center survey found, it's not because people believe that women lack what it takes to be leaders -- most perceived no difference between men's and women's leadership capability.

Is it men who are the barrier to the advancement of more women into leadership roles? Are they acting as the gatekeepers of the boardroom, shutting women out?

I really don't think so.

I think that when it comes to striving for and winning leadership roles, women are their own worst enemy.

It all begins with something that will strike a chord in many of the women reading this: the tendency we have to be self-critical. Too many of us listen to that little voice inside our head that whispers, "You're not good enough" or "You're not thin enough" or "You're not young enough"--or one of the many other anxieties our culture has ingrained in us.

Just as they are about to take a bold step forward, it is this voice that pulls women back, that tells them, "You're not the one to lead" or "You can't speak in front of all those people" or "You will fail if you try to launch that business."

This self-critical voice demands nothing short of perfection. It says that we have to master something completely and faultlessly before we show the world that we can do it. The greatest fear of the perfectionist is that her mistakes or shortcomings will be uncovered. Vulnerability exposes her to appearing weak or being judged negatively by others, so it is only when she is fully armored -- invulnerable -- that the perfectionist feels safe to step onto the stage.

Of course, this moment almost never comes, because perfection is unachievable. Perfectionist women shrink from taking the risk of trying for a leadership role, because they assume they can never be good enough. Or if they do try, it's only when they are so overqualified that they feel sure their imperfections won't be exposed. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to try for a role they want even if they aren't fully qualified yet.

Perfectionism may seem to be all about doing your best. It's not. It's about worrying what other people think of you. It's about endlessly comparing yourself to others.

The number of women who are not in leadership roles is legion. There should be strength in those numbers, right? I mean, just imagine if all the smart, talented women who have leadership or entrepreneurial potential began to forge connections with one another. Imagine if they began to leverage the power of those connections. Do you really think we would still have only 22 percent of upper management roles held by women?

This utopian vision of women boosting one another has not come to pass... because women are too busy comparing themselves to other women! Eaten away by insecurity, they undermine not only their own leadership chances but other women's chances, too. Gossip and passive aggression are often the weapons of choice. In its most recent survey, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that male workplace bullies target women 57 percent of the time, but female workplace bullies are significantly more likely to pick on other women -- 68 percent of their targets are female.

Chauvinism, harassment, work-life imbalance, gender pay inequality, and indeed workplace bullying -- these are all important things for our culture to continue having conversations about. But it's time that we also introduced a new conversation. We need to start talking about how it is not men who are the threat to women rising through the ranks. Women are stifling their own career acceleration and achievements through self-criticism and perfectionism. They are holding themselves back from running companies or starting businesses, because they are more focused on comparing themselves with, and competing against, other women. They are tearing one another down, when they could be collaborating and amplifying one another's strengths.

What a waste of talent. Imagine what we can achieve when women start working together. When we let go of perfectionism and being hypercritical of ourselves and other women. When we build up the courage to be vulnerable so that we can take bold risks and truly show up in the world.

What behavioral patterns do you notice in yourself and other women that could potentially be stifling professional acceleration and growth? Tell us in the comments!