Leading with Courage: Women Leaders in the U.S. and Around the World

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Fashion designer Tony Burch said, “If it doesn’t scare you, you’re probably not dreaming big enough.” In organizations across the United States and around the world, women are breaking down barriers and leading with skill and wisdom.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Rider University Online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership program.

How women leaders can overcome the barriers that may hinder their path to professional leadership.

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Women Leaders Today

In 2018, 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women. The year before, women made up 22.2% of Fortune 500 board members. It was also determined as of October 2017 that 9% of venture capital deals were led by female partners. 25% of these deals related to software, 22% of them were associated with the internet, 15% were linked to telecoms, and 12% were tied to health care.

Senior Leadership

Certain positions in senior leadership tend to have a greater percentage of women than others. Globally speaking, it was determined that women held 43% of human resource director positions and 34% of chief financial officer roles. Conversely, women only held 14% of all corporate controller roles and just 7% of partner roles.

In 2019, it was determined that 29% of senior management positions were held by women. However, minority women in the United States still struggle to occupy senior positions. In 2018, it was determined that these roles were occupied by just 6.2% Latinas, 3.8% blacks, and 2.4% Asians.

Studies indicate there are several barriers to progress faced by female senior leaders. For instance, 32% of women struggle with finding time alongside core job responsibilities. 27% cite lack of access to developmental work opportunities. 26%, meanwhile, point to a lack of access to networking opportunities as a barrier.

Obstacles to Overcome

Female leaders are often negatively labeled for acting in ways that are expected of male leaders.

One of the bigger issues concerns the relabeling of what are considered stereotypes. For instance, women in power are often called “bossy,” when a more appropriate term would be “leader.” Strong women have also been described as “difficult” in times when “assertive” is the more accurate term. Women standing up for their viewpoints have been called “forceful,” at times, when the more correct term to use was “confident.” Finally, women pursuing their ambitions have been labeled “aggressive;” however, women can be “ambitious,” too.

Succeeding in Leadership

Women in leadership roles and women pursuing leadership positions need additional support and may face obstacles that their male co-workers don’t face.

One of these obstacles concerns current leaders’ tendency to favor those who think like them, which typically translates to men in leadership. A study published in 2018 found that “male peers rate female manager’ job performance significantly lower than that of male managers.” A suggested fix to this issue involves companies re-evaluating their performance rating structure to identify sources of bias.

Another obstacle revolves around the extra support that women pursuing leadership roles need. According to an article in the journal Sex Roles, “In one line of research, both experimental exposure and long-term quality interactions with female leaders predicted stronger implicit self-concept of leadership and stronger career ambitions.” It’s suggested that to overcome this, women can seek out networking events featuring successful women speakers to learn about leadership and read blogs and books by female leaders to find inspiration.

A third hurdle centers on women needing greater access to paid parental leave. In 2016, just 14% of U.S. civilian workers had access to paid family leave. To alleviate this issue, it’s thought that organizational leaders should recognize the importance and value of supporting new mothers in their organizations.

Putting the Right Foot Forward

Countless studies have shown the excellence of female leaders across multiple leadership competencies, yet women pursuing leadership roles still have much work to do.

Why Women Make Excellent Leaders

A study published in 1990 by author, speaker and leadership consultant Sally Helgesen found women leaders prioritize relationships, prefer direct communication, and embrace diversity. Thirty years later, many leaders – both male and female – embody and agree with these characteristics. A study of 360 evaluations found that women across all levels were rated higher in 12 of 16 leadership competencies. Women also significantly outperformed men in talking initiative and driving for results.
According to a Gallup report, female managers are, on average, more engaged than male managers. Female leaders were also rated higher for connecting with their teams, offering recognition, and matching talent with the right position.

Tips for Female Leaders

There are several key strategies female leaders can use to strive for success. These include networking regularly for long-term success, hiring for their weakness or positions they’re unqualified for, communicating with customers daily, and staying aware of industry news and trends.


The conversation surrounding women in leadership has garnered increased attention in recent years. Organizations are recognizing female leaders’ valuable contributions and taking steps in the right direction, offering greater support and equal opportunities.