Barriers to promotion for female managers

The Centre for Sociological Research recently published a study analysing the factors that hinder Spanish female managers reaching senior management positions, according to the perceptions of female managers. In this respect, having children is perceived as one of the most significant barriers to pursuing a professional career, especially among the youngest managers.

In March 2007, the Centre for Sociological Research (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, CIS), a public institution which carries out studies on diverse dimensions of Spanish society, published a report entitled Women managers: Transition towards top management (in Spanish, available for purchase). The report examines the way in which factors such as social structure, family, professional relations, education and cultural stereotypes limit women’s careers in their advancement towards senior management positions. Apart from these external factors, internal variables such as age and personal characteristics can also be crucial in this respect.

Study methodology

From a methodological perspective, the report is based on two different but complementary qualitative techniques, that is, an in-depth interview with 12 female managers, combined with three focus group sessions including six female managers in each group. These interviews provide an interesting analysis of the main difficulties or barriers experienced by women in reaching top management positions, as perceived by female managers.

Main findings

Educational profile

According to the female managers who participated in the study, women in management are less likely than men to have technical university qualifications such as in engineering. The same is true for management-type courses such as a Masters in Business Administration (MBA). The women interviewed considered this lack of educational experience as a barrier.

Impact of having children

The decision to have children is one of the most significant obstacles preventing the full development of a professional career, according to the women interviewed. Thus, the younger female managers are inclined to delay having children, as they believe that postponing this decision may help to consolidate their professional career.

However, the key question for these women – particularly after they reach the age of 30 years – is how long to postpone the decision to have a baby, and often a rather late maternity period ensues. It is worth noting that many of these young women point out that their male counterparts are usually not prepared to fully assume the tasks and duties associated with having children, which adds to the difficulty for the women concerned. Interestingly also, the young female managers suggest that, all else being equal, companies prefer to hire a man rather than a woman due to the maternity ‘issue’.

Meanwhile, the Spanish female managers aged over 46 years who participated in the study stated that, despite the difficulties, the decision to have children was always clear for them, as they wanted to have a family regardless of the possible obstacles that might arise in their working lives.

Anxiety and lack of confidence

The female managers who were interviewed admitted that they feel more anxious than male managers do about uncertain work situations; they also feel more responsible than their male counterparts if things do not turn out as expected. The women acknowledged that this situation is a barrier to job promotion, as uncertainty is a key characteristic of the current business environment, particularly for those in managerial positions.

The women also have less confidence in their powers of negotiation, which is an added difficulty for defending their interests, especially in terms of salary issues.

Social networks

According to the research, female managers do not develop a gender-related solidarity at work to the same extent as men do, which means that female managers tend not to promote women. This seems to apply particularly among the youngest female managers, whereas the opposite is true for the older women.

At the same time, female managers claim that they have fewer social opportunities than men have for creating and developing business-related networks, such as at clubs or sports activities. The women recognise that these environments are very useful for fostering promotion and recommendations for job promotion.

Nevertheless, Spanish female managers argue that they are not less ambitious than their male counterparts, but rather that they have a broader scope of interests. Usually, they prioritise personal aspects over professional ones, which often restricts their opportunities for advancement.


The qualitative and small-scale nature of the research should be emphasised as this limits the representative reliability of the conclusions drawn. The study focuses on the difficulties and barriers to managerial promotion and thus the strengths of female managers are not discussed. Among the latter attributes, the women interviewed underline their ability to incorporate sensitivity in the management of the enterprise, which is perceived as an added value compared with their male counterparts.

Iñigo Isusi, IKEI




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