April 2021
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Illustration of a woman standing and looking up at the ceiling. Above the ceiling are the legs of four men.
TD Magazine

Help Women Break Through Barriers to Leadership

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Make your organization's talent pipeline more inclusive through sponsorship and improved leadership training.

Take a moment to examine your company's org chart. How many women are in top executive positions? What obstacles would you say are preventing more women from moving up in the ranks?


Based on 160 in-depth conversations with senior women executives from the US and Canada, consulting firm Oliver Wyman's new study Making the Invisible Visible identifies four critical barriers women face in rising to executive leadership positions:

  • Leadership is the same game with different rules.
  • Results don't speak for themselves.
  • Qualified women are unintentionally left on the sidelines.
  • Implicit biases and microaggressions are exhausting.

So how do women break through, and what role do companies play in that? On the individual level, the study found that two personality traits help women persevere—problem solving and resilience. Further, almost all the women interviewed cited at least one critical sponsor who helped pave their way.

This is an opportunity for talent development professionals. To make a difference, the report suggests building sponsorship programs, revitalizing leadership training, and taking a top-down—rather than bottom-up—approach to providing opportunities for women.

Sponsorships, which differ from mentoring, are structured relationships between senior executives and non-executive employees that facilitate stretch projects and access to opportunities and build rapport that otherwise may not develop organically via networking. Sponsorships open doors that were previously closed. The report adds that "changes at the top can happen faster and leading by example cascades and multiplies the impact throughout the organization."

While most leadership training focuses on building employees' skills, the study recommends talent development professionals prioritize inclusive leadership development. Educate senior leadership about gender bias and systemic barriers to raise awareness; create a shared leadership model so the onus is collective rather than on the individual; and build out criteria to develop and assess leaders based on that shared model. According to the report, taking those three steps can fast-track inclusion efforts.


Gender parity will help talent development practitioners build an inclusive organization. But beyond gender, layer on other identities to reveal the organization's true levels of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Companies that succeed in the future will include women in leadership positions. Now is the time for talent development to lead that charge.

About the Author

Avra Bossov is the senior specialist for social engagement for the Association for Talent Development (ATD). In her role she works to tell ATD's story on our digital platforms, curates and creates social media content, and is an overall team player in our marketing department. Avra earned her bachelor's and master's degree from the George Washington University, specializing in Media & Strategic Communication.

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