A graphic for the research summary on Women's Progression

A Summary of the Barriers Women Face in the Workplace


This 97-page rapid evidence review provides the most comprehensive overview of the key themes and concepts underpinning current gender equity discourse. The detailed desk research commissioned by the Government Equalities Office (GEO) covers 18 years, making it one of the largest and most reputable analyses. It’s a significant knowledge base for anyone working or interested in gender inequity or diversity and inclusion. 

Summary and Methodology 

The GEO commissioned the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership to produce this research paper, which reviews 175 studies between 2000–2018. It primarily focuses on women in high-skill occupations working on permanent contracts. It frames gender division in the workplace and maps the barriers preventing women’s progression, which include process bias, hostile cultures and conflicts between caring responsibilities and working cultures. The study considers progression through the gender pay gap (GPG) of wage growth and the vertical occupational movement in an organisation. It concludes with suggestions for how employers and governments should act to remove these barriers. 

Context: Gender Division in the Workplace 

When women and men enter the workforce, their wages show little difference. A large gap appears when individuals are in their late 20s and early 30s when women’s progression begins to flatten. Different work patterns, for example, working part-time, account for almost half of the gap. Men also use their initial employment experience as a ‘springboard’ into senior roles, whereas women experience ‘sticky floors’, restricting their progression. 

Barriers to Women’s Progress 

Process Bias. Unclear criteria and processes for the promotion of women increase the likelihood of bias in decisions. For example, decisions based on networks, where men are the gatekeepers, and opportunities to impress decision-makers arise informally. Or managers who sponsor those just like them, excluding women who don’t fit the narrow and existing definition of leadership and contribute to the social cloning of current teams.  

Conflicts arising from Flexible and Part-time Working patterns. As this report statesNorms of overwork, expectations of constant availability and excess workloads conflict with unpaid caring responsibilities.” Alternative working practices have unfortunately led to only partial benefits in gender equity. The evidence suggests that the rise in policies to support flexible and part-time work may have helped women continue their careers. Still, they have also shut down wage and occupational progression. Essentially ‘part-time’ is equated with ‘part commitment’. The data implies that the increase in senior women working part-time is a result of them already being in senior roles when negotiating a change in their working patterns. 

Working cultures that are hostile, Sexual harassment and stereotyping are still prevalent in workplaces, suppressing career progress. For example, the Double Bind, where women perceived to ‘act’ like men are not liked and penalised, while women who don’t are judged unsuitable for leadership.


This section considers evidence from 75 studies with no geographic restrictions from 2000 onwards. It concludes that overall, a rethinking of the ‘traditional’ full-time, long-hours career path is needed and suggests how employers and the government should act. The researchers highlight the negative impact of overwork cultures and the expectations of constant availability and ‘presenteeism’. This culture disproportionately impacts individuals trying to reconcile work and life and those with boundaries, such as caring responsibilities. This report concludes that alternative working time policies without culture change “risk embedding gender inequality due to the negative effects these practices have on career progression.”  

The report also asserts that organisations with “Senior role models who talk openly about balancing work and family life or who work part-time are important for reducing flexibility stigma, as are supportive line managers.” 

Organisations should also address bias in pay and promotion processes, and there is good evidence that formal and transparent recruitment, pay, and promotion processes enable women. However, these processes can have a negative impact if organisations fail to hold managers accountable for process adherence and outcomes. 

To find out more about the key concepts referenced in this summary, visit:

Sticky Floors

Gender Pay Gap (GPG)

Double Bind

Unpaid Labour

Click here to learn more about the research-inspired: ‘Boundaried Worker’

Click here to learn more about Women’s Development Programmes: 6 Lessons from Designing Women’s Development Programmes