An Ideas-Based Online Magazine of the Global Network for Advanced Management

What are the Obstacles to Women in the Global Workforce?

Women around the world continue to face systemic barriers and frustrations in the workplace. While the phenomenon is universal, the details differ from country to country, shaped by cultural and economic forces. According to a recent survey of business students and alumni conducted by the Global Network for Advanced Management, “Women remain underrepresented in business leadership roles worldwide, and intriguing variation across the globe and even across industries within the same country suggests that there is more to blame than a monolithic culture of patriarchy.” Global Network Perspectives asked expert faculty across the Global Network to comment on the barriers—explicit or implicit—to women participating in the economy in their countries.

Photo of a group of women in a office cubicle
Photo by Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images.



Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile School of Business
The obstacles to women participating in our local economy are much the same as the ones observed in other developed countries. After some research in this area, we have found that the gender conventions in which women are socialized limit them to narrowly defined roles, consigning them to political and economic inferiority. Traditionally, in our culture, women have been considered mainly responsible for domesticity and nurture. By nature, the thinking goes, men “take charge” and women “take care.” If this thinking were correct, powerful women or women in leadership positions would be anomalies; they go against the natural order.

As with other beliefs, this outlook shapes our perceptions, our expectations, and our behaviors. It arises through a process that social psychologists call stereotype confirmation. Once we have a stereotype in our heads—like “women can’t lead”—we have a tendency to see every instance that confirms our stereotype while filtering out all the counterexamples. Moreover, women’s educational levels do not have the same relationship with their work participation and status as they do for men. For instance, in terms of salary, the gap between women and men is bigger for highly educated women.

The other barrier that follows from this stereotype is the difficulties that women encounter in balancing their personal lives with their work. In most organizations, there are few women that get to higher levels and even fewer to the level of the board of directors. Some of the excuses made about this fact are that women are not interested in powerful careers, that women value personal interests over professional ones, or that women who have obtained power tend to drop out. These gender stereotypes are pervasive. They affect evaluative behavior and eventually promotions, especially when situations are ambiguous. These barriers are mainly implicit.



Renmin University business school logo
There are obstacles to women in the workplace on both the organizational and the societal level. When recruiting, some organizations have a clear bias against the female gender, which decreases the proportion of women employees. In China’s securities industry, there is an implicit rule that women should not be allowed to enter at the societal level. In China, there is a popular saying: “It is better for a woman to marry well than find a good job.” Indeed, Chinese society is full of bias against single women, especially when they reach 30. Those women will receive a lot of pressure from parents, relatives, and the media to settle down. Consequently, performance and promotional opportunities are limited for them.

There is another implicit factor against women participating in the economy, and that is the attitudes of women themselves. After becoming mothers, Chinese women are more inclined to stay at home, confining themselves to a closed-off environment. Thus, their progress may be stopped, preventing them from further participation in social and economic life. 


Laura Guillén, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior, ESMT Berlin

ESMT Berlin logo
Well-documented barriers to organizational influence and career growth exist for women. In my research, together with Professors Margarita Mayo (IE Business School) and Natalia Karelaia (INSEAD), we study gender differences in self-confidence appearance. Drawing from a multisource, time-lag data from a multinational software development company that employs more than 4,000 people worldwide, we studied supervisor perceptions of how confident their employees appear to be in their ability to successfully complete their job responsibilities. 

Our results show that in male-typed positions, job performance and self-confidence appearance go hand in hand for both men and women. In particular, successful performance makes both men and women appear self-confident in the eyes of their supervisors. However, we also found that self-confidence appearance is not equally rewarded for men and women. Where the self-confidence appearance of high-performing men directly enabled their influence in the organization, this was only true for high-performing women who also had a high prosocial orientation. 

One (arguably simplistic) implication of our results is to offer different advice to women and men on how to progress in their careers. For men, the takeaway would be: “Do not worry about being prosocial; if you perform, you will get ahead anyway.” For women, the message would be: “If you want to be influential and thus be able to progress, make sure you perform and also invest time in helping others and being a good citizen.” Indeed, performance reviews for women contain nearly twice as much language about being prosocial—with terms such as warm, empathetic, helpful, and dedicated to others—than for men.

This obligation to others, either explicitly or not, may place women at a clear disadvantage to men who can focus exclusively on their individual objectives. Moreover, in terms of organizational consequences, non-prosocial attitudes from promoted men may imprint organizational culture with non-cooperative values. Thus, one (arguably fairer) implication is to suggest that organizations use procedures and checks to eliminate such biases, and that they make sure the responsibility for creating diversity-friendly and fair workplaces are not exclusively placed on women.

Based on a study conducted by researchers Laura Guillén (ESMT Berlin), Margarita Mayo (IE Business School), and Natalia Karelaia (INSEAD) on gender differences and self-confidence appearance. Watch the video “What Barriers Do Women Face in Getting Leadership Positions?” featuring Professor Guillén.



University of Ghana Business School logo
Women in Ghana are generally less likely to participate in the labor force and climb corporate and public ladders due to cultural factors. The culture in Ghana has mostly followed a paternal inheritance system in which men, rather than women, are forced to look for jobs to be able to leave an inheritance for their families. Consequently, women stayed at home, did household chores, and brought up children. Further, women would leave their homes and marry into other families, so investment in women—especially in education—was generally seen as a waste of money and time. Since education is one of the key drivers of women’s participation in the labor force, this has hampered their chances of being absorbed into the workforce.

Recent educational campaigns to promote girls’ education have, however, helped to shrink the gender gap in the labor force. According to the 2015 Ghana Statistical Service Labour Report, Ghana has a labor force participation rate of 67.6%, made up of 71.4% males—compared to 64.7% females, who are mostly employed in the informal sector. 

Even though female representation in the workforce has improved, the “glass ceiling” in Ghana may not be a myth. Undeniably, significant progress has been made. Women have risen through corporate ranks and hold or have held top government and corporate positions. The current Chief Justice is a woman. The Chairperson of the Ghanaian Electoral Commission is also a woman. The Speaker of Ghana’s Parliament from January 2009 to January 2013 was a woman. Women are still under-represented in management and board level positions, however, even though they constitute a larger share of the Ghanaian population. Combining family and work life and possible lack of spousal support make it difficult for women to succeed in the workplace. Women therefore sometimes voluntarily decide not to take top management or board positions because it can adversely affect their homes. In addition, qualified females may not be given the opportunity to take up top positions, even though they may be as qualified as their male counterparts. Predominantly, it is women with a drive to prove a point who end up making it to the top of the ladder. Even where women have risen to become bosses, male subordinates may find it difficult to take instructions from them. 

Today’s obstacles therefore are not explicit, and despite the progress made, it is probably still a man’s world in Ghana. More research needs to be carried out to determine if indeed there is a “business case” for female participation in the workforce. This will make it more likely that businesses will encourage and put in place female-friendly policies that increase female participation in the workforce, especially at the managerial and board level.

The authors are members of the Policy and Governance Research Group at the University of Ghana Business School.



University of Indonesia Faculty of Economics logo
Indonesia has achieved significant progress in women’s empowerment. The gender gap in lower education is diminishing, and is narrowing in higher education. Many young women have been promoted to high-level positions in business and government. Practically speaking, gender equality has almost been achieved in many segments of people’s lives. Although female labor-force participation is increasing, however, it is still lower than male participation. One reason may be stereotypes about the type of jobs appropriate for women. Additionally, there is a widespread perception by women that working is a preference; if household income is sufficient, women tend to stay home looking after their children instead of increasing their self-identity or means of survival. But this tendency has been diminishing over time. Gradually, Indonesian women have begun to participate in jobs usually dominated by men, whether piloting a commercial airplane or working as a construction engineer. 

There are no regulations that hamper women’s access to employment. While there is gender equality in women’s access to employment, however, there is still a problem with equity. For example, even when women and men have the same level of education and the same position at a job, women tend to be paid less than men. So it is equity—not just equality—between men and women that should now be strongly promoted. 

The statistically lower participation of women in the labor force is also due to a lack of understanding of the nature of “women’s work.” Many domestic activities, such as cooking for the family, are not counted as economic activities, although without a wife cooking at home, for instance, a family would have to buy food in the market. Thus, there is a misconception about household and market production. This leads to an underrepresentation of the economic contribution of women in statistical reports. The official definition of work at the statistical office should be reviewed, especially with the current development of e-commerce. E-commerce that is managed at home is a wonderful solution for women who supervise early childhood development while still contributing to the economy. In one study, many of the young women interviewed in a suburb of Jakarta Capital defined working as engaging in the formal sector outside the home. In many cases, women themselves do not realize that they actually participate in economic activity. 



Technion - Israel Institute of Technology logo
Explicit obstacles: the Israeli culture strongly emphasizes the family institution. Israeli families have, on average, about three kids. This means that women during the age of fertility are busy raising their kids and investing in their families. At the same time, there is also a strong emphasis on education. Young women in Israel comprise more than 50% of the student population, and they complete their academic studies either before they have kids or in parallel to having kids. They prefer to have professional jobs, and they balance their family and career with a stronger emphasis on the family when their kids are still young. This balance, in my view, partially explains the high scores that Israel gets, compared to other countries, on measures of satisfaction of the population.

Israeli women prefer to take jobs that allow them to get home in the afternoon, rather than staying late at work. In contrast, the career-family balance of men is tilted toward investing more of their time and effort in their jobs, which enables them to be promoted to higher-level positions. At the same time, they make sure to have quality time with their families. In summary, Israeli women gain a lot of satisfaction by raising healthy families, and on the career-family bias, they tend to invest more in their families when their kids are still young.   
The obstacle that I see for women has to do with the employability of more mature women, whose kids are already grownups. The job market has a bias towards young people; this is a big obstacle for women, who would happily invest more in the workplace after their kids grow up.

Given the longevity of women versus men, it makes sense to get women back into the workforce after their kids grow up. There is a significant bias against employing people who are 40 and above, however. I suggest changing the norm concerning the employability of women over 40 and to move it forward at least 10 years, so that women in their 40s or early 50s will be able to join the workforce and contribute enthusiastically to the economic growth.
Implicit factors: both men and women have an implicit bias toward a preference not to employ women with young kids, assuming that they will not be able to contribute as much as men do. The research shows that both men and women fall into this bias. This is an unjustified implicit bias, however, because women who hold responsible positions continue to do their work late at night, after their kids go to sleep. Therefore, they should have equal opportunities for promotion to upper-level positions.  



Hitotsubashi ICS logo

In 2013, Catalyst found that Japan ranked 42nd out of 43 OECD countries in terms of the number of board seats in corporations held by women, at 1.1% of Japanese board seats held by women.  

Research by Professors Hiroki Sato and Hideo Owan of Todai, Professor Takao Kato of Colgate University and Hitotsubashi University, and others at METI and JILPT (Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training) found that the following managerial practices contribute significantly to the promotion and advancement of women in management in Japan:

  • Developing women leaders by providing a broad range of critical, strategic assignments related to the company’s core competency. These assignments serve to broaden women managers’ comprehension of key functions and stretch their leadership ability

  • Carefully considering female employees’ career development when making early job assignments and assigning women to key functions in the company early in their careers. Early assignments set the stage as a baseline for managerial development in lifetime employment systems such as Japan.

  • Assigning skillful bosses as role models (and mentors) to high-potential young women, especially in assignments early in their careers.

  • Conveying leadership expectations to high-potential men and women employees early on to discourage them from quitting.

  • Performance evaluation on the basis of “smart hours” (i.e. working efficiently) rather than “long hours.”


Yale University logo

The Global Network report published in March 2017, “Women in the Global Workforce,” outlined in stark detail the horns of a dilemma that threaten to impale the careers of women the world over. On the one hand, employers reward around-the-clock availability (unless—and this is the good news!—employers can rely on measures of productivity independent of time spent working). On the other hand, expectations about women’s place in the home are nearly universal. If women disproportionately bear the burdens of family work, what can be done to give women an equal chance at professional success in a world that rewards time on the job?
The case of Japan is instructive. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is highly motivated to help women balance family and career in order to boost Japan’s overall fertility, and thereby to avert a future fiscal disaster in which there are insufficient new workers to pay the pensions of retirees. In 2013, to much fanfare, Abe launched a series of policies (dubbed “womenomics” by Goldman Sachs’s Kathy Matsui) to increase women in the workforce. Abe has increased the public provision of childcare and put pressure on firms to hire and promote more women. 
A growing number of Japanese women are, in fact, in the workforce. But still, 44 percent of women resign from work at childbirth, and when they return to the workforce some years later, they tend to work in low-paying part-time jobs with no benefits. Japan’s gender wage gap, as a result, remains horrifyingly large.
What is holding Japanese women back from gender equality?
It is not that the average Japanese is more gender-prejudiced than his counterpart elsewhere. A 2014 online survey experiment, conducted by Rieko Kage of the University of Tokyo, Seiki Tanaka of the University of Amsterdam, and myself, found no bias against females when respondents were asked to evaluate the quality of a short essay they were asked to read assessing German reunification. The “trick” of the experiment, designed to get at the possibility of implicit bias against females, was to assign randomly a female or male name to an identical essay to see if respondents would reflexively assume a female author was less qualified to make judgments about German reunification. They did not, suggesting that the principal hurdles to female success in Japanese labor markets do not lie in rank prejudice.
The deeper problem—untouched by womenomics—is the rigidity of the Japanese labor market. Managerial staff of Japan’s strongest firms are drawn from the ranks of full-time workers who were given “lifetime employment” contracts at the time of hire. Employers avoid hiring or promoting women into these jobs because women are judged to be more likely to quit work upon the birth of their first child. Since firms invest in workers with an eye to a long-term “return on investment” over the course of a worker’s career, women workers who do not stay with the firm are a bad investment.
Long-term labor contracts associated with Japan’s most desirable jobs hold women back from workplace because of women’s statistically higher likelihood of quitting or cutting back on hours. Hence the Catch-22 for Japanese women: until they have more bargaining power within the family from an outside income, they are unable to get their husbands to shoulder more family work; and as long as this is the norm, they are unable to get equal jobs that would give them bargaining power in the first place. Japanese women are stuck.
What can be done? The government could upend Japan’s lifetime employment practices by opening Japan’s corporate world and labor markets to international competition.
Alternatively, the government could subsidize the costs to employers of hiring women to compensate firms for the risk to human capital investment.
Without enacting one of these policies, the government has given firms an unfunded mandate to act against their interests—a mandate firms have easily dodged so far.


Luz María Velázquez, adjunct professor, department of philosophy and ethics, Egade business school, Tecnológico de Monterrey

EGADE Business School logo

Machismo as part of a system is without a doubt one of the main barriers keeping women from getting into—and moving forward and remaining in—economics and politics. In a recent research project that I co-authored with Gabriela Monforte and Elena Olascoaga (Tecnológico de Monterrey), we found that women with sexist attitudes prioritize only economic aspects when they make decisions, and women without sexist attitudes place priority on economic, ecological, and social aspects in equal measure when making decisions, which could make a sustainable transformation more likely. The challenge, then, is to be careful not to replicate traditional chauvinistic models that hinder access to resources and decision-making for men and women of all types.

Meanwhile, something that is favoring the careers of professional, hardworking, entrepreneurial women is professional networks that provide a place to think about and offer equal opportunities. We are seeing more and more associations and groups of professional, entrepreneurial women that work in sorority to help all types of women in the workplace, and with their ventures, research, innovation, and leadership.

Practicing sorority in professional networks leads us to recognize ourselves, to make ourselves visible, and to call ourselves transformative leaders while also recognizing the talent, ideas, and contributions of other women in companies of every race, sexual orientation, age, profession, religion, and position who become inspiring role models.

Building and strengthening networks of women allows us to have access to, to be promoted to, and to remain in positions we had not reached before, and that is how we can change the rules, come up with new solutions, and take part in the construction of our society, politics, and economics.


Amy Ou, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, Department of Management & Organisation, NUS Business School

NUS Business School logo

When climbing the corporate ladder, women generally face four obstacles that can be summarized as four “me” problems: Belittled Me, Paradoxical Me, Burdened Me, and Isolated Me. With Belittled Me, people (sometimes including women themselves) tend to underevaluate women’s competency and job performance. With Paradoxical Me, female leaders are penalized for being too “feminine” or “masculine” in their leadership style. With Burdened Me, the careers of Asian women are particularly constrained by family responsibilities. With Isolated Me, women are excluded from elite networks, which tend to be the “old boys’ club.”
This year, National University of Singapore Faculty of Engineering’s Foo Maw Der, Human Capital Leadership Institute’s Don Chen, and I did a joint project looking into how women resolve the above obstacles. Based on interviews with mid- to high-level female executives in various organizations in Singapore, the researchers suggest that women themselves, the organizations, and the society at large can work together to shape a brighter career future for women.
With regard to Belittled Me, women can be aware of the discrimination they face in the workplace and engage in proactive impression management to establish a reputation for competence and reliability. Organizations can consciously and continuously raise awareness of gender biases, motivate management to genuinely support female career advancement, and practice meritocracy-based task assignment, performance appraisal, and promotion. 
With Paradoxical Me, women can practice effective gender-role-congruent leadership—such as transformational, empowering, or humble leadership—while being sensitive and flexible to contextual contingencies. Organizations can attenuate assertive or competitive cultures and develop teamwork and innovative cultures to support female flourishing.
With regard to Burdened Me, women must have clear work-life domains, create individualized working schedules and make them known to colleagues, and fully utilize organizational pro-family policies. Organizations can enforce pro-family policies with both wisdom and the determination to make them effective.
With Isolated Me, women should be aware of the importance of social networks and consciously invest in building networks that not only nurture friendship and emotional support but supply information, resources, and career sponsorship. Organizations can create gender-bridging networking initiatives that enable male and female mingling, establish female career role models, and make mentoring programs effective for women.
Overall, Asian societies can work on changing social expectations about women. For example, men and women should be expected to have equal responsibilities for childcare and housework, while girls should be encouraged to dream big, pursuing traditionally “male” jobs (e.g., pilots, engineers), and plan their careers early.
All told, it probably takes a village to support women in the workplace, but it is a battle that we don’t want to lose! 


Margarita Mayo, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior, IE business school

IE Business School logo

Women need to find ways to overcome the invisible barriers to full participation in the workplace. One popular example comes from statistics found in a Hewlett-Packard internal report. It shows that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the requirements, but women only apply when they are confident they can meet 100% of them. The advice is clear: women need to boost their confidence to search for more challenging career opportunities. While critical feedback from peers is intended to fix this issue, surprisingly, the so-called gender “confidence gap” may become wider with peer feedback. Women absolutely take feedback to heart. 

With my research team, I studied 169 men and 52 women who were assigned to “learning teams” as part of an MBA program over the course of an academic year. At the end of each term, students’ peers provided feedback on various leadership qualities: confidence, time management, multitasking, and getting buy-in. As published in Harvard Business Review, the results revealed that all students started off by rating themselves higher than they were rated by their peers. Everyone thought more highly of themselves than their peers did. But with each assessment, getting critical feedback encouraged reflection, making people’s self-image more realistic. 

Yet not everyone responded to critical feedback the same way. As illustrated in this Harvard Business Review video, women more quickly aligned their views of themselves to match others’ opinions. By the end of the year, the average woman saw herself almost exactly as her peers saw her on three out of four skills. For example, confidence was 3.84 (self-rating) vs. 3.67 (peer rating) in January; 3.64 vs. 3.44 in April; and 3.42 vs. 3.47 in June. 

Men showed a different pattern. Confidence began at 3.99 (self-rating) vs. 3.70 (peer rating) in January; 3.92 vs. 3.64 in April; and 3.84 vs. 3.64 in June. After receiving critical feedback, women were quicker to revise their self-confidence, while men continued to think highly of themselves. 

Why this gender difference? One possibility is that women are socialized to be more sensitive to other people’s opinions. Women’s greater openness and sensitivity to peer feedback is a mixed blessing. It increases their self-awareness and authentic leadership, which should motivate women to learn, seek out training, and improve their chances of promotion. The downside is that it also may block the very same confidence it is intended to boost, discouraging women to take on new challenges. 


Asli E. Mert, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the UNESCO Chair on Gender Equality and Sustainable Development, Koç University

Women’s status in the workforce is closely linked to their position in wider society, and their increasing labor market participation is in a tight-knit relationship with economic development. In Turkey, while women’s employment rate has remained evidently low (32.5% of women were in paid work by 2016), further problems are observed when examining labor market patterns. In relatively lower-prestige job categories, informal employment continues to be a significant issue for working women in Turkey mainly due to the lack of social security and poor working conditions; the overall informal employment rate was 44.3% for women in 2016. On the other side of the labor market, there are also many obstacles for women with higher qualifications: only 15.1% of managerial positions were held by women, and 40.7% of highly educated women were not in employment in 2016. The latter shows an immense level of human capital loss in the transition from education to the labor market, in large part because of the exclusion of women from the male-dominated jobs that their training corresponds to. Clearly, barriers to female employment exist for women from various educational and socio-economic backgrounds, mostly exacerbated by similar determinants.

There are various explanations as to why gender inequalities as well as segregation in different areas of the labor market persist in Turkey. On the micro level, a fundamental issue related to women’s employment is the unbalanced domestic division of labor, in other words women’s double burden, representing a highly explicit restriction to women’s prospects in paid work. In 2016, 55.3% of economically inactive women stated their reason not to engage in paid work as “being a housewife.” It is also not surprising that Turkey has the lowest maternal employment compared to other OECD countries: the recent preliminary results of Family Structure Survey of 2016 released by Turkish Statistical Institute reveal that daycare of children aged zero to five is undertaken by mothers at a rate of 86%, followed by grandmothers at 7.4%, while the percentages are remarkably low for paid daycare/kindergarten (2.8%) and nannies/child-minders (1.5%). The rate is 0% for fathers, which is highly concerning and sheds light on the problems surrounding maternal employment. Thus, the barriers to women’s employment at the micro level constitute one of the most explicit and persisting issues in terms of gender inequality in the labor market. This suggests that the support network for women at the social policy level could be strengthened by recognizing household responsibilities as a family matter rather than women’s duty by default, and supported by stimulating gender-egalitarian political discourse.

This is an excerpt from a longer article by Asli E. Mert in Global Network Perspectives, “The Diverse Barriers to Women’s Employment in Turkey.” 

United Kingdom 


Said Business School logo
There are a lot of opportunities for women in the UK and in Europe, right at the start of their careers. Then things start to change as they go up the career ladder, and the complexity of juggling family and work, alongside the unconscious biases of the corporate world, start to kick in. The barriers are more implicit than explicit. We have maternity leave, which is much more generous than in the U.S., but not all firms can afford to pay parents enough to make it worthwhile taking extended leave.

We have paternity leave, but few firms know how to help men and women access this in an equitable way, and it is still unacceptable in many companies for a woman to say she is taking time off to look after a sick child or attend a school event. Raising a family is a family issue, but even in a country where we have had two female Prime Ministers it is still the norm for women to do most of the caring, yet still feel it is their fault if they don’t catch up with their male peers in terms of salary or jobs. Our male colleagues would also like to be able to choose to be carers—we should think about their needs, too, when we talk about these things.

Global Network for Advanced Management