Article | Harvard Business Review | September 2013

Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers

by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb


Even when CEOs make gender diversity a priority—by setting aspirational goals for the proportion of women in leadership roles, insisting on diverse slates of candidates for senior positions, and developing mentoring and training programs—they are often frustrated by a lack of results. That's because they haven't addressed the fundamental identity shift involved in coming to see oneself, and to be seen by others, as a leader. Research shows, the authors write, that the subtle "second generation" gender bias still present in organizations and in society disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader. Women must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority. Practices that equate leadership with behaviors considered more common in men suggest that women are simply not cut out to be leaders. Furthermore, the human tendency to gravitate to people who are like oneself leads powerful men to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise. The authors suggest three actions to support and advance gender diversity: educate women and men about second-generation gender bias, create safe "identity workspaces" to support transitions to bigger roles, and anchor women's development efforts in their sense of leadership purpose rather than in how they are perceived.

Keywords: Prejudice and Bias; Leadership Development; Working Conditions; Organizational Culture; Gender; Diversity;


Ibarra, Herminia, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb. "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers." R1309C. Harvard Business Review 91, no. 9 (September 2013): 60–66.