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The Hidden Burden: Gender bias and stereotypes as a barrier to women’s leadership

Formative research from Ethiopia, India, Kenya, and Nigeria highlights the challenges women face in advancing their careers.

Photo: Christina Wocintech on Unsplash

“I will start with my Ph.D. The place I studied in was very much mainstream or old school, so it was headed by many men and very few women in positions of leadership, and there was always some sort of stereotyping of women; for instance, when I was choosing my doctorate and presenting what I initially wanted to work on, one of the comments I received was “As a woman why are you not looking at issues of gender.” So these kinds of comments, in terms of my own work, the kind of feedback I received was based on my gender rather than the work I put in.”


– Female, Assistant Professor, University, India.

Despite women’s tremendous accomplishments in education and the workplace over the last few decades, men still outnumber women in leadership roles, particularly at the top.1 These gender gaps exist notwithstanding evidence that women’s equal participation in leadership and decision-making is key in advancing other elements of gender equality, including increased access to services and influencing policymaking on gender norms.2 

In 2022, IDinsight conducted formative research in Ethiopia, India, Kenya, and Nigeria to understand factors contributing to the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in economics and financial services. Insights from 21% of women, 25% of whom work in finance and 18% in economics, indicate that gender bias and stereotypes are among the most significant barriers to women’s advancement into leadership. While discussing the barriers they had faced in employment, some women mentioned examples of gender stereotypes they had encountered:

“Cultural stereotypes as well, you find that not very many women are actually promoted…there is sort of a stereotype that men do better than women in this kind of profession. The percentage of women found in leadership roles is not as much as the ones found in men, but now the situation is kind of improving; we have a long way to go before we can see a 50-50 gender ratio in that area of leadership.”


– Female, Program Officer, Monetary and Regulatory Authority, Kenya

“Identity as a woman, yes. Being a woman in a tech environment, your male counterparts are always held higher; in terms of people thinking males probably have more information, which is sometimes incorrect.”


– Female, Manager, Non-deposit-taking Corporations, Kenya

Some respondents also reported facing barriers in recruitment and promotions. Some stated that their employers seemed reluctant to employ or promote women, viewing them as liabilities due to their assumed additional family responsibilities, particularly at the beginning of their careers. One woman noted:

“Post my Ph.D. I interviewed in three other places, and there was no reservation in any of them to ask me about my marital status and whether I have children or not; there was absolutely no hold back that they may be crossing the line in asking such questions. Still, they did not stop at that. All these potential employers also asked me what kind of work my husband does and whether he is likely to be transferred, so they wanted to know my availability and if my movement depends on him. They also asked if I was planning to expand my family and add more kids.’”


– Female, Assistant Professor, University, India.

This bias has been seen to create simpler pathways for male counterparts to advance in their careers.3 Consequently, women said they feel they must work harder than their male counterparts to be seen in the workplace. As one woman highlighted:

“I’ve had to work twice as hard as my male counterparts to get to where I am…I needed to work long hours just to show that I could work as hard as my male counterparts.”


– Female, Head of Department, Non-deposit-taking Corporations, Nigeria

While the burden of gender bias and stereotypes disproportionately affects women, it can also be a barrier for men and shows the need for more inclusive and flexible policies that support both men and women. In our research, one man stated that he believed there was gender bias in hiring for some positions where companies specifically wanted to hire women.

Breaking the Cycle: Interventions for Transforming Gender Stereotypes 

As part of the study, we reviewed literature on interventions and programs that could advance women’s leadership and transform gender stereotypes. The interventions include social and behavior change advocacy initiatives, gender parity policies, organization-level initiatives, and mentorship and networking programs. These interventions aim to address the barriers and discrimination women face in the workplace and promote gender equality.

Social and behavior change advocacy initiatives can hold organizations accountable for gender equality and implement systemic reforms to ensure equal opportunities for women.4 Gender parity policies, such as gender quotas, could also be effective in increasing women’s representation and institutional accountability on issues that disproportionately affect women. Research indicates that exposure to female colleagues and leaders can help alter biases and adopt more egalitarian attitudes.5

Organization-level initiatives can foster workplace cultures that recognize and address discriminatory selection and promotion procedures. Such initiatives can include mentorship and networking programs that provide women with access to role models, opportunities for professional development, and guidance on career paths to overcome barriers to advancement.5

In conclusion, this research highlights the importance of continuing to shine a light on the issue of gender bias and stereotypes and finding ways to address it. To effectively address the issue and its disproportionate impact on women, it is essential to consider multiple levels of change, such as society and organizations. The findings highlight the need to address not only the disproportionate burden of gender bias and stereotypes on women but also the intersections of other barriers that affect their advancement in the workplace. The insights provide valuable perspectives on the barriers that women face in the workplace and the need for supportive policies and practices.

There is growing support for interventions and programs that aim to address gender norms and stereotypes. However, due to the frequently overlapping nature of various initiatives for women and the need for multi-level and context-specific evaluations, it can be methodologically challenging to assess the isolated effects of any one intervention. There is a need for more research to shed light on experiences in various countries, particularly low- and middle-income nations, mainly focusing on the effectiveness of some of these interventions. Such research warrants future investment as it would assist in bridging an evidence gap in the literature.

You can read more on barriers to women’s leadership in economics and financial services from our recent study on The Status of Women in Leadership in Economics and Financial Services in Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and India: A Descriptive Study of the Barriers and Enablers for their Education and Career Trajectories here.

  1. 1. Hill, C., Miller, K., Benson, K. and Handley, G., 2016. Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership. American Association of University Women.
  2. 2. Berryhill, A. and Fuentes, L., 2021. Women’s Professional Leadership in Law and Economics: Review of Evidence. Co-Impact Research Working Paper.
  3. 3. Stamarski, C.S. and Son Hing, L.S., 2015. Gender inequalities in the workplace: the effects of organizational structures, processes, practices, and decision makers’ sexism. Frontiers in psychology, 6, p.1400.
  4. 4. Freitas Lopez, D.B., Mathur, S., Brightman, H., Berryman, K. and Hoffmann, K., 2020. Gender integration in social and behavior change.
  5. 5. See footnote 2.
  6. 6. See footnote 2.