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Vol. 40 No. 1 (2021): Advancing Women in Leadership

Women Perceive Barriers to Corporate Advancement as Self-imposed

January 9, 2021


The purpose of this study is to address a disconnect between women’s perceptions of their advancement potential / barriers to success in upper echelon corporate roles and their actual level of representation within such roles in companies in the S&P 500. This study involves the use of semi-structured phone interviews with 13 women in an organization in the S&P 500, who have been identified by organizational leadership as having high advancement potential. The results are evaluated using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to ensure an understanding of respondents’ experiences and perceptions in connection with their own process of meaning-making. In the findings, the participants’ responses indicate a disconnect between primarily positive perceptions on advancement opportunities for women, low levels of gender bias, and diversity initiatives and the actual outcomes regarding numbers of women in top leadership roles. Further, participants consistently espouse a strong sense of personal responsibility and a perception that barriers they encounter are self-imposed. This is consistent with an overall institutional narrative that organizational initiatives have mitigated the problem of women’s barriers to advancement in the corporate pipeline, which serves to reinforce the illusion of an equitable and effective meritocracy. By drawing on a phenomenological research design and prioritizing the experiences and perceptions of women on the edge of advancement into upper echelon corporate roles, it becomes evident that corporate narratives and diversity initiatives may be serving to reinforce, rather than ameliorate, the status quo of gender disparity in Corporate America. Both scholars and institutional stakeholders can build on the results of this study to move toward improving the corporate pipeline for women’s advancement to executive-level roles.

Keywords: gender, women’s advancement, corporate pipeline, stereotypic attribution bias