Women in C-suite: Navigating Invisible Obstacles


“Rather than a glass ceiling, many female executives are forced to navigate an invisible obstacle course of workplace and professional barriers to advance in the industry.”

In 2013, some colleagues and I published a research study in the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly concerning the lack of advancement of women into the C-Suite in the hospitality industry. Our work was borne out of a curiosity about the reported career obstacles that modern female executives faced. In the present era of “Me Too,” it seems appropriate to revisit that research to shine a light again upon the issues that might hold women back, as well as to re-examine the ways business leaders can help women to navigate those obstacles successfully.

Barriers to Women’s Advancement

Our review of the research has historically focused on traditional “workplace barriers” such as counterproductive behaviour of male co-workers, inhospitable corporate culture, lack of careful career planning, lack of mentoring, poor opportunities from managers, social exclusion, and stereotyping and preconceptions. “Personal barriers,” such as those related to life choices, were given less attention or emphasis.

However, interviews with female executives in the hospitality industry, as well as more recent academic research on the subject, revealed that not only are traditional workplace barriers holding women back, but self-imposed barriers are also doing so. These include the prioritization of family-related issues over career advancement, an unwillingness to relocate, concessions made in a spousal partnership, and self-perception of traditional gender roles.

On from where these self-imposed barriers emanate, research has suggested that “some of the barriers facing women stem from stereotypes about their role in work and at home.” This suggests the presence of a self-limiting factor around self-doubt, lack of confidence and fear of risk when opportunities arise for women to extend out of their stereotyped roles.

To reconcile the historical and contemporary research findings, we set out to answer: Have the most salient challenges affecting women’s advancement indeed shifted from traditional workplace barriers to self-imposed barriers?

We conducted an anonymous survey of 100 hospitality C-Suite executives, with a near-even split between men and women. We asked these executives about their perceptions of workplace (external) and self-imposed (internal) barriers, as well as general questions relayed to their attitudes, beliefs and demographics. With respect to workplace barriers, we found that both men and women agreed that the two largest “external barriers” to women’s advancement were lack of mentoring and lack of careful career planning and planned job assignments.

Both of these barriers point to shortcomings in organizational structure/support and managers’ leadership. Interestingly, female executives were more likely to identify stereotyping and social exclusion as the next most significant barriers, to a greater degree than their male counterparts. This reinforces the idea that there is a nuanced difference in how men and women perceive some career barriers.

Priorities, Ambition and Demographics

Next, we examined the self-imposed (internal) barriers by asking respondents to rate their personal priorities with respect to family, physical health and wellbeing, career, personal growth and development, community and spirituality. Both women and men rated “family” and “physical health and wellbeing” as their most important priorities, with “career” a close third.

We asked those respondents who were not yet CEOs to explain their reasons for “wanting or not wanting” to reach the top title in their organization. Interestingly, self-imposed barriers such as “not a career goal,” “priority for work-life balance,” and “priority for family” were emphasized almost equally as reasons by both men and women.

Scrutinizing the demographics, we discovered that female executives were more likely to have a spouse who worked outside the home. With respect to childcare resources, male executives were more likely to have a spouse or nanny/in-home care provider versus the women, who were more likely to rely on school/day care and extended family. With respect to marital status, female executives were less likely to have been married than their male counterparts, and of those who had married, the women were more likely to have been divorced at least once.

Conclusion and Recommendations

We concluded from our research that rather than a glass ceiling, many executives (both women and men) are forced to navigate what we termed an invisible obstacle course. Making this obstacle course visible requires addressing the underlying issues of lack of opportunities for leadership development, and lack of resources for ambitious-minded executives.

We further stated that our “cumulative findings challenge the thinking that barriers to advancement are mostly outside personal influence or control. Assuming that inadvertent leadership failures in the workplace exacerbate women’s self-imposed barriers, the question now becomes: How do organizations effectively respond?

Executives (women in particular) need to set aside time to think deeply about what path they want their careers to take and develop a sober understanding of that path. Then, they must have a candid conversation with their partner/spouse/family to decide together what sacrifices they are willing to make, how household roles are rebalanced, how childcare and other responsibilities are reassigned and which priorities are shifted. Over time and with different life circumstances, this path may change, but it’s important that those conversations continue to take place. Women also need to share their career path intentions with others who can help them achieve their goals.

Organizations should initiate a regular (monthly, bi-weekly or other) forum to discuss, document and track achievements; incorporate self-advocacy training into orientation and continuing education programs; create a mentorship program that helps women to develop their own interest inventories; and examine and update technology equipment and policies to allow employees to stay connected to their work and colleagues, but also have flexibility in their lives.

In America, you can be stigmatized if you’re not on a path of constant achievement and instead choose a “cruising altitude.” Create and implement a “gradual track” option for advancement programs to allow women (and men) at different stages of career/life balance to select a development pace that suits their current needs. This will improve retention and loyalty, reduce expenses related to recruitment and employee turnover, and keep the valuable institutional knowledge in your organization while accommodating prioritization choices during certain periods of a person’s career.