Spokane Journal of Business

Leadership journey reveals much work is left to do

Challenges and barriers for women still too prevalent, but there are some basic steps we can all take

  • Print Article

I couldn’t imagine managing an office full of women!” commented a male colleague of mine as we discussed my transition to Innovia Foundation over a cup of coffee.

I was surprised by the comment, although I shouldn’t have been. As much as we would like to think that gender bias and stereotyping no longer exist in the workplace, it is just one of many barriers women face in advancing their careers.  

While women have entered the workforce in relatively equal numbers as men over the past three decades and hold nearly as many middle management positions, the rise to the top can be slower and more difficult.  This is evidenced by simply taking a look at Fortune 500 companies, where women hold only 25 percent of board seats, and just over 20 percent of executive officer positions. The number of female CEOs at these companies is celebrated for reaching a mere 7% in 2020. 

The challenges and barriers women face in reaching leadership positions in organizations—from institutional barriers to individual biases and lifestyle choices—are real and well documented. If you don’t believe me, a quick Google search will reveal the startling extent of gender bias.

As I thought about my own journey to leadership, I reflected on what helped and hindered my progress.  For this article, I am going to call out two key takeaways, even though there were many more.  

First, it is about leaders. I was extremely fortunate to work with and for great people. I worked with leaders who challenged me to be better; provided me with opportunities to expand and grow my skills set; and who offered encouragement along the way. They removed barriers, rather than created them on my journey. 

Second, I was my own worst enemy.  I often felt guilty trying to find the right work-life balance. I questioned whether I had enough “experience” to take on the next challenge. I was afraid to fail. It was the mentors in my life who believed in me, even when I didn’t, that helped me get where I am today.

As I reflected on my journey, my mind also couldn’t help but wander to the various experiences I had endured that I am fairly certain my male colleagues never encountered.  While some of these memories made me laugh, others elicited the same disappointment I had experienced in the moment.

•The male boss who told me the problem with single moms was that they didn’t have a man in their life. I was a single mom.

•Or another who told me he liked to hire women because he could control them.

•The male colleague who told me I shouldn’t run for public office because I had young children and needed to be at home raising them.

•The fact that from the age of 34 I referenced my age as “almost 40” because I was always “too young” to run for public office. It didn’t seem to matter that former Mayor David Condon, former state Rep. Kevin Parker and I are the same age!

•Comments on my clothes, hair, makeup (or lack thereof), abounded. What did these have to do with my ability to get the job done?

•And don’t even get me started on the number of unwanted advancements, solicitations and marriage proposals.

Why do I bring these up? Because many do not believe or understand that these behaviors still exist in the workplace. Don’t believe me? Take one of your female colleagues to lunch and ask her to share her own stories and experiences of gender bias.

The 2020 Global Gender Gap report revealed that at the rate we are going, it will be 99.5 years before we attain gender equity. This is unacceptable. As you think about the women in your own life, what are you going to do to change that trajectory? 

Here are a few simple steps and ideas to get you started:

For leaders and managers:

•Be intentional. Look at your current team. Do you need more diversity? Are you providing professional development and opportunities for future female leaders?  

•Review policies. Do you have policies in place that allow for flexible scheduling and promote work-life balance? Are you clearly articulating the specific skills and experiences needed to move into leadership roles? Have you reviewed your hiring practices for leadership positions to ensure a diverse group of candidates?

•Create Culture. Are you creating a culture where the words, actions and decisions of leaders are fair and inclusive in promoting and encouraging women?

•Most importantly, be a role model. Be a mentor or sponsor for an aspiring female in your own organization or in the community. Model the behavior you expect of your team.

For aspiring female leaders:

•Get uncomfortable. Sit at the table. Volunteer for projects that will expand your skillset. Look for mentors and sponsors that will help you achieve your goals. 

•Communicate. Make your goals and aspirations known to your boss. Ask for advice and information on professional development and steps to advance in the organization.

•Look for Culture. Seek employers that value (and promote) work-life balance and offer flexible options.  If no options are available, request that your company create new programs or policies.

•Lean in. Women are often their own worst enemies. Support and encourage your co-workers and colleagues as they work to advance their own careers.

I want to end where I started, with the “office full of women” comment. I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Today, we have an incredible team of women and men, and together, we are committed to our vision of creating vibrant and sustainable communities where every person has the opportunity to thrive. I couldn’t be more blessed.


  is CEO of Innovia Foundation, of Spokane.

  • Shelly O’Quinn

  • Follow RSS feed for Shelly  O’Quinn

Read More

Sign up for our E-mail updates

including the
Morning Edition

Join our list