A new survey has found that most women believe that they face multiple barriers to advancement throughout their careers rather than just a single glass ceiling blocking their entry to the boardroom.
Ernst & Young quizzed 1,000 working women in the UK, concluding that age, a lack of role models, the impact of motherhood, and qualifications and experience are the four key issues hampering women's careers.
The professional services firm says that the barriers aren't chronological and can be experienced at anytime, often several at once. And while they aren't exclusive to women, it believes it is clear from the research that employers need to provide better support to help women overcome them.
Liz Bingham, Ernst & Young's managing partner for people, said that the focus on gender diversity in the boardroom has diverted attention away from the fact that organisations are losing much of their best female talent before they reach the most senior levels of management.
"The notion that there is a single glass-ceiling for women, as a working concept for today's modern career, is dead," she said. "Professional working women have told us they face multiple barriers on their rise to the top. We recognise that in our own business, and in others, and professional women clearly experience it – that's what they have told us."
Ernst & Young's head of advisory, Harry Gaskell, added that encouraging and supporting women into senior positions is a talent pipeline issue. Organisations need to ensure they are supporting women at every stage of their career lifecycle, not just as they are about to enter the boardroom.
However it is age, not gender, that emerges from the survey as being the biggest obstacle that women face during their careers. Whether they are perceived as being too young or too old, a third (32 per cent) of the women questioned said it had impacted on their career progression to date, with an additional quarter (27 per cent) saying that they thought it would inhibit their progression in the future.
Most markedly it was women in the early stages of their career who felt the most impact of this, with half of all respondents between 18 and 23 claiming that age had been a barrier they'd already encountered.
Barriers related to a lack of experience or qualifications also featured strongly in the survey. It was the second highest factor that had inhibited women's careers to date (highlighted by 22 per cent of respondents), and the third highest factor cited as a future inhibitor (19 per cent).
"There is acknowledgement that high academic performance is still part of selection criteria in some organisations, especially at graduate level – and there is a wider issue here about fostering social mobility," Harry Gaskell said. "But much greater value is being placed today on non-academic achievement and on diversity of experience and perspectives."
The impact of motherhood on a career is well documented, with almost one in five (19 per cent) of those questioned saying that it had impacted on their career to date and a further 25 per cent saying they thought it was the second biggest inhibitor to their future careers, after age.
"I think the only way that organisations can really tackle this is through positive intervention," Liz Bingham said.
"This includes the provision of supportive programmes that help women to transition back into work after maternity leave and empowers them to take control of their careers and make informed choices."
Finally, it is telling that three-quarters of questioned for the survey said that they have few or no female role models within their organisations, with a small proportion – some eight per cent - going as far to say that this has had a detrimental impact on their career.
Ernst & Young says that managing these four barriers is about personal responsibility, appropriate and targeted support from business and positive government intervention.
When respondents were asked to identify what three things their organisations could do to better support women's career progression, a third pointed to more support after returning to work from having children, a quarter called for more support at every stage of their career lifecycle and one in five felt that more visible female role models were needed.
"Positive interventions can work," concluded Harry Gaskell. "But we think one of the most fundamental aspects of managing barriers is role models – for people to actively demonstrate that barriers can be over-come. If we can get this right, then perhaps the other barriers will become more manageable and less marked over time."