Personal & Executive Coach

Consulting Psychologist & Psychoanalyst

Women Leaders

While more women are setting examples of leadership, not to mention of outstanding leadership, the tide is a long way from turning for many women, globally, in the workforce and in leadership positions.  The following observations are not meant to be writ in stone or describe any absolute state of affairs, but to generalize about challenges afflicting many women leader across a variety of contexts, worldwide – so that, for those for whom it is relevant, a path of change may be navigated.

Subconscious Biases

Gender is one of the first categories infants learn about differentiating people.  Even when an individual eventually identifies as non-binary (male/female), they are born into and develop in a powerfully gendered world.  Society repetitively reinforces the “girl” or “boy” identity and its associated characteristics, even before an infant is born.  Therefore, gendering in self-concept and social and cultural relationships is extremely deep, and very often beyond conscious control.  Even if one may espouse the view that gender differences, expectations, and stereotyping should be minimized, deeper feelings and implicit biases are in operation, whether or not a person is even sufficiently aware of them to acknowledge them.  These include attitudes about oneself as  well as those about others.

Culture and Gender

More than any other single factor, culture powerfully sets norms and expectations about gender characteristics and behavior.  While this may seem obvious in cultures where this is done explicitly, it is also very much the case in cultures which espouse and practice greater gender parity.  In my work I have run into very similar dilemmas with women clients from, say, a Middle Eastern or Asian country, and from, say, a Scandinavian country.  Therefore, when a collision of expectations occurs between a woman leader and her communities (self, family, team, organization, society), the problems can be felt to be severe, painful, and difficult to solve. 

Women and Power

Most women leaders have to navigate a tricky path of managing power, which many male leaders do not.  A woman leader’s comfort with power is not just about her own comfort, but also about the comfort of those around her.  One middle-aged woman CEO called her all-male team her “boys,” and felt that she was effective insofar as her persuasion style fell into the model of a tough mom.  However she was keenly aware that her team balked when she was tough in ways that they viewed as unfeminine.  To a large extent, she felt that her leadership and decisions were circumscribed to acting within that style – even when the company might need her to do otherwise – because she believed that to do otherwise would cause her to lose the support and cooperation of her team.  

In other words, regardless of a woman’s talents and performance, she may find her leadership constrained by stereotyped gender constructs. The Bem Sex Inventory, which has collected vast data to differentiate traits people consider masculine or feminine, has found that most people attribute desirable leadership traits with masculinity.  These include “self-reliant, forceful, analytical, capable of defending one’s beliefs, athletic, willing to take risks, self-sufficient, and dominant.”

While a woman as well as a man may easily have any of these traits, but many a woman leader has found that in the workplace, these traits can attract negative reactions. For instance, when men show anger they’re often seen as competent, superior negotiators and suitable for career advancements. When women show anger, they’re often seen as overly emotional and less capable. If they choose to be “rational, assertive, strong and dominant, they provoke dislike and backlash.” (Stanford Note on Women and Power).

Women Often Sell Themselves Short

It is no wonder then, that  Harvard professors McGinn and Bowles found that women business school graduates sell themselves short on negotiating benefits and compensation compared to their male counterparts, particularly for softer or more ambiguous compensations like bonuses. This falls into place within a bevy of researched and anecdotal data describing women either being placed into, or placing themselves into, secondary positions; or minimizing their voice. Another such study showed that men who voiced an idea or opinion elicited reactions which were more likely to be absent when a woman voiced the same idea or opinion before him. Repeated such experiences not only condition women’s behaviors, but accumulate to form and consolidate subconscious attitudes that drive those behaviors.  (See Imposter Syndrome)

Other Challenges

Women often have fewer role models, mentors, and network – all of which perform powerfully important function to help a woman to succeed.  They often complain of having to prove their competencies, even exceed those expected from men.  Studies also describe the “glass cliff” women teeter on when they’re appointed to many boards. They’re more likely to assume leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest (Ryan and Haslam, 2005). They’re highly visible, expected to perform, and more susceptible to criticism without considering the company’s position before they began their work.

Personal/Professional Balance

Due to childbearing and variable support for maternity leave, it is often the case that a woman makes a choice between prioritizing career or family.  Some chart a high-stress course of doing (or trying to do) both, but often at the cost of quality time for herself.  Then there are the cultural and contextual pressures impingeing on the question of how to balance work and personal life.  One high-performing American woman of South Asian birth felt too ashamed to be able to confide in her mostly work-related community of friends about the following dilemma.  She was married to a man of her ethnic group, who also had a high-pressure job, but whose family and her own family were putting considerable pressure on her to work any amount less to allow her to fulfill a more supportive and housewifely role to him.  While typical work-life balance dilemmas are sufficiently challenging, this example clarifies the possibility of underlying, and often deep, conflict about gender roles, mixed priorities, and the challenges of expectations.

Ageism and Women

Women labor under the burden of social pressures that glorify youth.  While men often experience something similar, women report becoming invisible and undervalued more often than men as they age.  This can be viewed as a “second wave” of the misfortune of not having enough women in the workforce, not to mention in leadership, in the first place. 

Coaching Women Leaders

All of the above issues provide dividends when they can be explored and articulated – when a woman leader has a sounding board to process these experiences, for which there are insufficient venues to do them justice.  Coaching can also help a woman leader examine her own abilities, leadership skills and style, and gather valuable feedback about her role in the organization.  All of these may help a woman leader develop an articulated path for further development.  In addition, women leaders may be interested in focusing on specific issues such as:

  • Communication
  • Executive Presence
  • Presentation Skills & Self-Promotion
  • Negotiation
  • Conflict and Difficult Conversations
  • Life Transitions
  • Imposter Syndrome