30 Criticisms That Hold Women Leaders Back, According to New Research

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While women have been making strides in the fight for gender equity and equality in the workplace for decades, they still continue to earn less, face discrimination, and struggle to be promoted to top leadership positions. 

Researchers Amy Diehl, Ph.D., Leanne Dzubinski, Ph.D., and Amber Stephenson, Ph.D. set out to understand why this is. What they found was that women can be criticized, critiqued, and held back in their careers for virtually any reason. 

“We were surprised at just how many identity factors the women mentioned,” says Diehl, who is chief information officer at Wilson College, a gender equity researcher, and coauthor (with Dzubinski) of Glass Walls: Shattering the Six Gender Bias Barriers Still Holding Women Back at Work. “We concluded that anything about a woman can be used as a surface-level criticism hiding the underlying gender bias.”

Their study looked at 913 women leaders in four female-dominated fields—higher education, faith-based nonprofits, law, and healthcare—since gender bias research often focuses on male-dominated fields, such as STEM. 

Using a measurement tool they previously created called the Gender Bias Scale for Women Leaders, the researchers compared women leaders’ perceptions and experiences of bias. 

Their process involved asking open-ended questions, including what types of biases the leaders had faced in the workplace other than gender and what additional factors had influenced their work experiences.  

What they found were 30 common personality traits and identity-based characteristics that the women leaders reported were used against them at work. These were:

  1. Accent
  2. Age
  3. Attractiveness
  4. Body size
  5. Class
  6. Color
  7. Communication style
  8. Cultural identity
  9. Dietary restrictions
  10. Education
  11. Employment history
  12. Ethnicity
  13. Gender conformance
  14. Health
  15. Intellectual ability
  16. Marital status
  17. Nationality
  18. Occupation
  19. Occupational position
  20. Parental status
  21. Personality traits
  22. Physical ability
  23. Political preferences
  24. Pregnancy
  25. Race
  26. Religion
  27. Residential location
  28. Seniority
  29. Sexual orientation
  30. Veteran status

A consistent challenge that emerged for women was their age, explains Diehl. Some reported being considered too young to lead, while others said being too old hindered them from advancing in their career. Parental status, choosing to have children or not, was another point of criticism for women. The report stated that a higher-education leader described how people assume she “can’t take on a bigger role ‘because of the kids,’” which made her feel that she needed “to work extra hard” to show that she could succeed as both a mother and leader. 

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