Women in Leadership: a Manufactured Glass Ceiling

By Sarah Abdelshamy

When Meghan Brooks spoke at the Canadian Commission for UNESCO’s IdealLab, she made a powerful argument for why women in leadership positions are crucial for promoting innovation and creativity. She said, “women’s participation and representation [in leadership] promotes greater diversity of thought and experience, enables the construction of more inclusive and meaningful citizenship, and generates the conditions for the empowerment of marginalised groups.” Unfortunately, the numbers don’t lie: despite the mounting evidence supporting the benefits of women in leadership, women in Canada still only hold about a third of 

management occupations and women of colour are even more underrepresented. In fact, Black women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities and LGBTQ2S+ women hold less than 1% of senior management positions.

So, why are women still struggling to break through the barriers? While Canada has made significant strides towards gender and racial equity, the sad reality is that there are still many barriers that continue to prevent women from holding leadership positions. Let’s delve deeper into this issue and put our weight behind solutions that have the potential to shatter the glass ceiling. 

What are the Barriers Preventing Women from Holding Leadership Positions?

The glass ceiling is often referenced when discussing the barriers that prevent women from holding leadership positions. However, the glass ceiling is not an immovable material that can be situated in a particular place or singular moment in time. To the contrary, the glass ceiling is dynamic and moves upwards or downwards depending on who is attempting to break through it. This phenomenon is defined by what we understand intersectional to be – meaning that the glass ceiling is manufactured to block people who hold multiple intersections from moving upwards in their profession and/or lives. For some women, the glass ceiling only emerges decades into their profession stopping them from smoothly transitioning from a role of supervisor to director. For others, the glass ceiling emerges in the early moments of their career and for some it emerges multiple times in their career. Let’s delve deeper into what those glass ceilings could look like, who they target, and how they emerge. 

Implicit bias and stereotypes

One of the earliest barriers is the issue of implicit bias and stereotypes. This is an example of a glass ceiling that would emerge very early into someone’s career, often on account of one’s race or ethnicity. As an example, we can look at a case by the Harvard Business Review which concluded that Black women were often viewed as angry or difficult when exhibiting assertive behaviour in the workplace – a behavioural characteristic that is often praised, valued and even fostered in white men in the workplace. The perception of Black women as being difficult to work often impacts promotion opportunities and prevents them from reaching leadership positions. 

Another study that was conducted by Catalyst also revealed that racialized women in Canada feel as though they are confronting a ‘double-binds’ situation where they feel like they need to choose between being competent or likeable. This shows how difficult it is for particularly racialized women to be taken seriously as leaders. It is never as simple as just needing to be assertive or competent; they must also balance the implicit ways that people may view them not on account of their work ethic but on account of how they are perceived. Not to mention how much the constant vigilance and acute hyper awareness of how one may be perceived can cause a huge blow on morale. It’s difficult to quantify or evaluate the risk of biases and stereotypes since they often operate on an implicit level; however, they end up having a really significant impact on women and their career trajectories. Whereas for men and some more privileged women, their career trajectories relies exclusively on their work output and ethic; for racialized women they must also account for implicit biases and stereotypes that they may be silently confronting/combatting.

Lack of mentorship and sponsorship :

The barriers that prevent women from holding leadership positions are circular – meaning that one feeds into another, creating a cyclical pattern. Let’s put this into simpler terms: because less women hold positions of leadership, there are less women who are able to offer support and guidance to those who may be emerging leaders. This is more true for women of colour and LGBTQS+ women who are often excluded from informal networks that provide mentorship. 

 This is something that WEC has identified as a structural lack and has sought to remedy through our mentorship program. It is precisely from his understanding that the only way to structurally empower women is to develop a network of sponsorship. Her Mentors emerged from our understanding of mentorship as an essential/key element in providing support for professional development but also the recognition that the lack of mentorship opportunities actually compounds women’s inability to break through the glass ceiling. In Her Mentors, we match skilled newcomer women with established professionals in their field and locale in order to offer them guidance and support when navigating a job market that can be both demoralising and suppressive of women.By providing newcomer women with the opportunity and access to a network of professional and resources to support their career development, we are actively able to confront and bypass the barriers that currently exist. 

Gender pay gap :

Finally, one of the most important structural barriers that prevent women from accessing leadership positions is the gender pay gap which continues to impact our country. A report by Oxfam showed that for every dollar earned by non-Indigenous men, Indigenous women earn only 56 cents. On the same hand, racialized women earn 84 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized men. 

Beyond the obvious disparity in pay, why is it important to highlight the impact of the pay gap? Because it has a compounding effect – meaning that the lower pay actually prevents women from getting access to the education and experience needed to advance their careers. We can also see how this would disproportionately impact working class women who may need to juggle more than one job or career in order to sustain their families. This ultimately leaves them with less time and resources to invest in their career advancement.

On a broader note, the pay gap’s harms are not just limited to how they impact individual people’s lives, it also contributes to broader economic inequality. Women who earn less than men will struggle to pay off their debts, to save up for retirement, or to invest in their own business ventures. When 50% of the workforce is unable to practise these economic safety plans, not only does it cripple the economy but it also perpetuates a cycle of financial insecurity which causes long-term consequences on women and their families. 

This is to make no mention of the compounding factors faced by women with disabilities and mothers. Indeed, mothers in Canada suffer from what we term the “motherhood penalty” – meaning that mothers earn on average 12% less than women without children while fathers earn on average 6% more than men without children. This is mostly due to workplace discrimination, the mounting cost of child care and general caregiving responsibilities. 

In 2021, WEC led a national meeting with dozens of Canadian non-profit organisations in order to determine how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected. We noted that “[according to non-profits whose main audience is women], women are generally discouraged as they are predominantly the ones who had to quit their jobs for domestic upkeep.” They all reported that an overwhelming majority of the women and communities they serve were made more financially vulnerable due to the pandemic because of a variety or combination of reasons such as having to quit their jobs for caregiving responsibilities, the mounting responsibility of children doing zoom school, the physical isolation which left some women in dangerous abusive situations, and more.

Gender pay gap :

Conclusion: Strategies to increase women in leadership

The glass ceiling is manufactured – meaning it’s been created and can be dismantled. With enough collective pressure, we can fracture the glass ceiling. What does collective pressure look like? Pressure can come in the form of adopting diversity and inclusion initiatives, leadership programs, creation of networks, and largely creating spaces for women to be able to discuss these challenges openly. 


Across the country, initiatives to support diversity and inclusion are emerging. However, as a nonprofit organisation that works across Canada, in collaboration with other organisations holding similar mandates; we have witnessed firsthand how effective change is best done collectively and collaboratively. 


Here are some initiatives that we, at WEC, have worked towards:

Creation of a network - TW

The creation of sector-wide networks can have a significant impact on on breaking down barriers to accessing leadership roles. Creating opportunities for networking events and conferences that focus specifically on these issues, allow women to build connections, gain knowledge, and develop new skills. It also has the potential to become an advocacy platform for policy changes that promote diversity and inclusion in the sector and beyond. 

For example, our TW network brings together over 100 organisations in Canada and our first few conferences were spaces where we could discuss the unique challenges that they face, especially in light of COVID-19; and their strategies and best practices. This allowed us to build a report that would document the current challenges that are unique to women from diverse backgrounds  and how the nonprofit sector can better serve our communities. 

Leadership programs - 50/30

Another strategy that would promote women in leadership is participating in the 50:30 Challenge project – an initiative in the form of a pledge the goal of which is to challenge Canadian organisations to increase the representation of women and diverse groups by including them in leadership positions. The project calls on organisations to achieve a minimum of 50% women and/or non-binary on their boards as well as 30% women in senior leadership positions. Most importantly, this challenge is meant to highlight the value and importance of having a diverse team and the benefits that come from giving all Canadians a seat at the table. 

WEC has been part of the 50:30 Challenge project since February 2021 – taking part in the creation of toolkits and resources for organisations, self-assessment tools to evaluate an organisation’s progress toward gender parity, among others. We’re proud to be one of the many Canadian organisations that have committed to the 50:30 challenge – country-wide efforts are the most effective way to build momentum towards a more equitable future. 

Making space to document

WEC has a variety of programming that seeks to weaken the structural barriers that prevent women from holding leadership positions. From mentorship programs to leadership programs and the creation of a country-wide network for the nonprofit sector, WEC is committed to increasing the representation of women in leadership. Not only is it critical for achieving gender equity; but by breaking down barriers to women’s advancement we can slowly but surely move toward a society where women are able to reach their full potential without the added, manufactured obstacles. 

Our upcoming annual conference Breaking Barriers is dedicated to promoting leadership and economic empowerment to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) women. Armed with an intersectional lens, the conference will bring together experts, leaders, and advocates from across Canada to explore the challenges and opportunities facing BIPOC leadership. The conference is currently accepting applications for speakers where we will ultimately seek to promote women’s economic empowerment and development. 

Ultimately, at WEC, we tirelessly strive to dismantle the intersectional barriers that women face due to racial discrimination, gender discrimination, xenophobia, and class struggles. Unfortunately, women in Canada bear the brunt of discriminatory systems, but we remain unwavering in our efforts to ensure that they have access to the essential resources, support, and opportunities they need to succeed. Today and every day thereafter, we recommit ourselves to the fight for gender equality and the empowerment of women.


Barriers & Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/barrier-bias/ 

Why Everyone Wins with More Women in Leadership

WCM’s Women in Leadership Network

Harvard Business Review

Catalyst: the Double Bind Dilemma

Women Deliver: Women in Leadership

Canadian Women’s Foundation : Women and Leadership in Canada 2022 Report

Harvard Business Review: Women Rising the Unseen Barriers

The 50-30 Challenge Project