The disparity is stark. Women represent 57 percent of college students and 47 percent of the workforce in the United States, yet fewer than seven percent of women are CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. The percentage of women elected to Congress continues to hover around 20 percent.

To say “Women don’t seek high-level positions” is to make a hollow claim. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that nearly 60% of all master’s degrees are earned by women and slightly more than half of the PhDs. This is clear evidence that millions of women have professional ambition, and a core component of career success is rising through the ranks of leadership. So why are so few women able to break through the glass ceiling?

Common obstacles

There are at least four major obstacles that women face in trying to achieve and succeed in leadership positions. These include:

  1. Stereotype threat – This obstacle affects members of any group impacted by negative stereotypes. The threat arises when the affected individual is aware of the stereotype, develops anxiety over being treated through the lens of the stereotype, perceives events as confirmation of the stereotype, and then begins to behave and perform according to the stereotype. In the case of women leaders, they must contend with the stereotype that women are “too emotional,” often to the extent that they start questioning their responses to stimuli. Eventually, emotional reactions become triggered more easily, thus confirming to the individual that the stereotype is indeed accurate and that, by extension, the individual not qualified to lead others.
  2. Status threat – Many people’s automatic reaction toward women leaders is skepticism. That is, instead of accepting a woman’s authority, they question and test it and look for flaws in order to confirm existing biases about women’s leadership capabilities. For the person on the receiving end of these doubts, such threats to status and autonomy—and the resulting perceptions of unfairness—can affect brain chemistry in ways that usually manifest as anxiety or reactiveness. In reality, both men and women often display anxiety and reactiveness in these scenarios, but for women who are already stereotyped as “emotional,” it becomes a closed loop. The only way for her to escape the loop is to resign and seek work elsewhere, likely at a position of lower status.
  3. Favored leadership qualities being viewed as “masculine” – In general, people tend to admire leaders who are confident, assertive, decisive, and perhaps even demanding or forceful. If those leaders are men. Women who exhibit those same attributes are often viewed negatively and elicit resentment from staff members rather than respect, leaving those women leaders with the challenge of trying to appear strong, but not too strong, and remaining sensitive and responsive without coming across as weak or too soft on under-performing employees.
  4. Work-life balance – The business world is structured to favor men’s lifestyles. Whether it’s traditional office hours, travel requirements, or the lack of policy around paid maternity leave, men can usually carry on as usual, whereas women face a hard choice: work or family. Of course, not all families adhere to this classical dynamic, but the vast majority do, and the domestic burden generally falls on women.

Caliper’s study

To learn more about the obstacles women leaders encounter in the workplace and find out what the successful ones have done to push through, Caliper conducted a study of 85 female executives. Participants were asked to complete the Caliper Profile along with a series of short surveys to uncover perceptions related to leadership barriers, threats, and styles.

The overall results of the study showed work-life balance to be the greatest obstacle for women leaders. Specific difficulties cited were lack of support in the household (i.e., being expected to take charge of domestic responsibilities regardless of workload), interference from family responsibilities, and feelings of guilt for not devoting enough attention to domestic responsibilities. Many of the women leaders surveyed also felt they had to outperform male colleagues to be considered equally effective.

Other challenges, such as stereotype threat, were not as significant for this group of leaders.

The qualities of successful women leaders

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most successful women leaders were those who display similar personality attributes as top-performing male leaders. From a psychometric perspective, this means scoring highly in traits that support direct communications, decisiveness, strategic thinking, and results orientation. Like many successful men, these women were less inclined to be rules followers.

The takeaway should not be that women have to act like men to be successful, but, rather, that assertiveness, action-mindedness, and problem-solving skills are universal qualities of good leaders.

Based on the framework established by the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ), effective women leaders tend to show a Transformational Leadership style, which involves encouraging employees to take ownership of their responsibilities and providing the intellection challenges and stimulation to keep them motivated and inspired. Many believe that this leadership method will be most effective in the coming years, as technology replaces more and more task work and cross-functional collaboration and creativity will be increasingly relied upon to keep companies competitive.

There’s no easy answer to the question, “What must women leaders do to break through?” Many women currently in leadership positions advise the next generation to find mentors and allies, confidently build their brand, and, perhaps most importantly, block out as much of the external (and internal) noise as possible and stay focused on the bottom-line goal.