A survey of 1,000 UK working women, between the ages of 18 - 60, by Ernst & Young revealed two thirds believe they faced multiple barriers throughout their careers, rather than just a single ceiling on entry to the boardroom.
Based on the results, Ernst & Young has identified four key barriers to career progression for today's working women. These barriers are: age, lack of role models, motherhood, and qualifications and experience.
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: "The focus around gender diversity has increasingly been on representation in the boardroom and this is still very important - as members of the 30% Club we are committed to this.
"But the notion that there is a single glass-ceiling for women, as a working concept for today's modern career, is dead. Professional working women have told us they face multiple barriers on their rise to the top. As a result, British business is losing its best and brightest female talent from the pipeline before they have even had a chance to smash the glass ceiling. We recognise that in our own business, and in others, and professional women clearly experience it - that's what they have told us."
The survey identified age - perceived as either too young or too old - as being the biggest obstacle that women face during their careers. 32% of women questioned said it had impacted on their career progression to date, with an additional 27% saying that they thought it would inhibit their progression in the future.
Most markedly it was women in the early stages of their career that seemed to be most acutely impacted - with half of all respondents between 18 and 23 saying age had been a barrier they'd already encountered in their career.
"Age is a very complex issue, especially when it's linked to perception. It's concerning to see that women seem to be most vulnerable during the formative stages of their careers, when they are working their way through the ranks," said Bingham.
She argues businesses need to be aware of pervasive attitudes towards age as a barrier within organisational culture, and suggests that one way of managing this is to encourage diverse role models within an organisation, who can visibly demonstrate that age is not an inhibitor to opportunity and progression.
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 (according to 22% of respondents), and the third highest factor cited as a future inhibitor (19%).
The impact of becoming a mother on a career is well rehearsed and therefore it was unsurprising, if disappointing, that this was identified as a key barrier. Nearly one in five (19%) of those questioned said it had impacted on their career to date. While a further 25% said they thought it was the second biggest inhibitor to their future careers, after age.
Bingham added: "I think the only way that organisations can really tackle this is through positive intervention. 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."
Ernst & Young has trail blazed a number of initiatives for working mothers aimed at increasing retention levels and ensuring that women feel supported through-out their career life-cycles. This includes a maternity coaching scheme providing one-to-one counsel with a consultant before, during and after maternity leave.
Three out of four (75%) of those questioned said that they have few or no female role models within their organisations. With some respondents (8%) going as far to say that a lack of role models had had a detrimental impact on their career to date. And therefore role models were identified as one of the four barriers.
Bingham says a lack of role models was a consistent theme across all the age groups polled. "I was really surprised and concerned by these findings. From my own experience I have seen how good role models can have a transformational impact on an individual or team.
"I think one of the big problems is the misconception that you have to be perfect in order to be a role model. Whereas in reality we all have skills, attributes or experiences that would be valuable to share with others."