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Why there are few women in leadership roles (and how to change it)

There are only 74 women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. Here's why this is and how you can help get more women in leadership.

Behind the scenes

Last updated

29 Jul 2022
Why aren't there more women in leadership and how we hope to get there

Name three CEOs you've heard of in the past decade who are men. If you're like most, you'll think of familiar faces like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Tim Cook. Some people can easily name more, listing five or even 10. 

Now, ask people to name one woman CEO, and many will draw a blank. Maybe it's because they aren't as visible in the media or because there are far fewer of them.

In 2000, there were only two women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Fast forward 15 years, and that number only grew by 22. Then growth went stagnant, declined, and grew slowly. By 2022, there were 74 women CEOs (a record high) employed at America's 500 highest-grossing companies.

With all the progress women have made in the workplace, they are still lagging in leadership roles—not just as CEOs but in lower management positions too.

Let's explore some reasons behind the lag and what we can do to change it. 

Prejudice: women can't be CEOs and moms 

Motherhood is one of the primary reasons women are held back from leadership roles. Many corporate leaders are prejudiced against women in the workplace because they view a woman as a potential setback. One day, they'll get pregnant, go on maternity leave, and come back with baggage, making them less driven and available to propel the business forward. 

Many women themselves view this as a setback, too. 

When I became a mom, I had doubts that I could be successful in balancing both things.

This was compounded by the comments and questions I'd receive from other women who learned of my pregnancy, such as: ‘Are you going back to work? Will you be part-time? How will you raise your kids if you are working 40+ hours a week? How do you feel about sending them to daycare? Ugh, I tried to send my kids to daycare, but I felt too guilty; good for you to still be able to do it, etc.’

It’s an outdated view, especially as women continue to prove they can be both mothers and CEOs. I believe we've come a long way as a society—it's more than possible today to have a family and be very successful. 

But women still need support to thrive. We need to level the playing field so women are no longer at a disadvantage. 

There's a highly praised book called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead that's geared towards women and women leaders in particular. It's written by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Meta (Facebook), who's also a billionaire, philanthropist, and mother.

It sounded intriguing. Who wouldn't want to pick up her book to learn about such an amazing journey? So I got a copy. But as I started reading, something stuck out like a sore thumb—this woman was raising children, pursuing a career, and going on countless business trips. 

I thought to myself, wow, it's so great that she could have a nanny while she's going after her goals. Unfortunately, the book didn’t speak about Sandberg's unique advantages, like being able to afford a nanny and coming from a wealthy family who sent her to Stanford University. 

Sandberg embraced the opportunities and resources she had to overcome the many obstacles we all face in business, and I’m sure she deserves what she has earned. But many of us don't have the same open doors, and it’s an uphill battle—especially when we embrace motherhood.

Lack of resources at home and in the workplace

When I gave birth to my first child, I was expected to watch the baby for the first few months. That meant an extra 12–16 weeks at home, choosing not to be at work during that time. This kind of choice has repercussions not only while you’re away but after you return.

I'm not alone in this belief.

More women are speaking out in public and starting discussions. Some companies are paving the way with mom-friendly policies, offering women extended or unlimited paid time off. But many of these benefits come with strings attached, such as requiring new moms to receive business messages while they're away. 

Companies need to reinforce their maternity leave policies with support. For instance, they could offer child care bonuses, flexible work schedules, or remote work options. 

Instead, the messaging is often: choose between being a mom who’s there for your children or being a career woman. We've yet to find the balance in today's workplaces, especially in pathways leading to CEO positions. 

So we have women leaving the workplace in droves. Since the pandemic, there are nearly two million fewer women in the workforce. The primary reason is child care.

In almost every region of the US, child care is the highest expense in the household.

Without a support system and affordable day care expenses, it becomes impossible for women to stay at work, let alone climb the corporate ladder. 

Low confidence issues in women (or so it seems)

There's talk going around about women lacking confidence in the workplace. They say we are hesitant to speak up and demand higher wages, better positions, and a say in the company. But I don't believe women have confidence problems. In fact, many of the women I know are confident in their own ways. 

When people think of confidence, they often think of men being outspoken, commanding the room, and saying whatever's on their minds. 

And while this is one way of exuding confidence, it's not the only way. Some have a quieter, more calculated approach to leading and making decisions. This doesn't make them any less confident than the outspoken individual. 

So determining a woman's confidence shouldn't be about her outward demeanor. Instead, it should depend on actions—can she make a decision and stick to it? It doesn't matter if or how she promotes her ideas or how she presents herself in a group. 

Confidence isn't one-size-fits-all. Real confidence is the willingness to be who you are all the time, including in how you make decisions and accept the consequences. In my experience, women are much less likely to try something that could fail. We are too worried about being perfect and right. Confidence includes acknowledging that a risk might have mistakes but being bold enough to accept that those mistakes can still lead to good. Even from the mishaps, some good can come. 

But this only works if leaders see confidence in all its forms. 

Sometimes, women err too far in over-communicating their thoughts on decisions, which makes them seem less confident. They can benefit from being more direct with their language. An exercise I often use is to write my thoughts out, then immediately try to edit those thoughts down into as few words as possible. By doing so, I can be direct, which can help exude my confidence in making my decision.

On the flip side, I've also seen women communicate little, if any, around decisions made within their teams. They might send a group chat message over Slack but not speak up in the team meeting, often because they are worried they might not be met with support.

Others may take a little longer to come to a decision because they are being considerate of everyone involved. This shows empathy—a critical skill to have in leadership—but it comes with its limitations. Overdoing it could risk missing opportunities.

If women can embrace their natural confidence and improve communicating their thoughts and ideas, they can demonstrate their ability to lead and potentially earn more management roles. 

Skills women can build to gain leadership roles

Not all women are the same—some will need to hone different skills than others. But there are some key things women can work on to help them move up the leadership ladder:

  • Stop worrying about what can go wrong if you take a leadership role—just pursue it 

  • Create a framework for decision-making, including communicating your ideas and reflecting on your decisions 

  • Before you present a problem to your team lead, analyze the problem, think of how to solve it, and pitch your solution 

  • Make decisions without requiring approval at every stop along the way 

  • Be succinct—learn to articulate and summarize problems in one or two sentences

  • Speak up when you have ideas about a problem without fear of being wrong 

  • Get comfortable having direct conversations—giving face-to-face feedback is a skill you can develop with practice 

While these issues aren't 100% specific to women, I have seen them often among women I’ve worked with. 

How Hotjar is helping women gain leadership roles

Women in leadership is a topic we often discuss in our forums and other channels. It's not something left for executives to talk about behind closed doors—it comes up in company meetings, face-to-face discussions, and other settings. 

A recent example is a meetup we had in June. At Hotjar, we have different departments and teams, each with its own leader. Our meetup ended with each team's leader summarizing their main takeaways from a workshop.

But when I looked around, I saw I was the only woman on the stage presenting our takeaways. Christian, the Director of Brand, also noticed and pointed it out, validating my thoughts. So after the session, we brought it to the CEO's attention, and he acknowledged in front of everyone that he was disappointed with the representation on the stage.

He apologized to everyone and said they needed to do better. This opened a dialogue across the entire company. In fact, our recruitment team is leading discussions on how to increase diversity. And Hotjar is putting people in charge to solve these issues at every level.

Noteworthy women in Hotjar’s leadership

There are two women I'd like to highlight who are doing great work leading teams at Hotjar:

  • Ashlee Brown is the Lead of our Customer Success Team and is super high-performing, driven, and competitive (a power woman). But she's also empathetic to her team members and puts their needs first.

  • Karissa Van Baulen is our Customer Education Lead and is very thoughtful and unafraid to ask tough questions, even if it risks disrupting a relationship. If she sees something unfair, she speaks up because no one else will. 

Both these women are great examples of balancing compassion with strength, being able to fully embrace who they are, and still be highly effective in business.

Policies that help women

Hotjar's policies, which apply to everyone, make it easier for women to create a work-life balance and still pursue leadership positions. Here are some of my favorite examples:

  • Well-being budget: team members can use this budget for whatever they define as helping their well-being, including supporting their mental health

  • Limited working hours: our company-wide dedication to never exceeding a 40-hour work week leaves room for employees to have lives outside of work 

  • Exception leave: this is a paid leave anyone can take for medical or personal reasons 

  • Part-time option: team members can choose to work part-time for three months or longer (with pay adjustments) rather than having to take a leave of absence.

Policies that help women can help everyone. If all companies took the time to learn about the obstacles women face and offered support to overcome them, we would see more women rising to the top. 

Hopefully, this idea will spread like wildfire, empowering women everywhere to become managers, leaders, and CEOs—without sacrificing time with their loved ones.

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