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Why High-Potential Women Are Ambivalent About Leadership

What I learned from two years of interviewing women leaders and equity experts.

When I moved from being a clinical psychologist in a leadership role to being an organization developmental psychologist supporting other women in leadership roles, my aim initially was to help them navigate the complex external labyrinth of their organizational politics while also the internal labyrinth of unlearning the unhealthy, systemic gendered messages about how they “should” show up as leaders.

What I started noticing over time as I started working with women at various stages of their leadership journey—but especially those around mid-career—is that many of them were ambitious, driven, and high-achieving, but reluctant or ambivalent about taking on leadership roles. On the surface, one would label this as a lack of confidence.

In fact, when I initially conducted a literature review of leadership development programs aimed at women, many of them were consistently focused on addressing “imposter syndrome” and “confidence” of women leaders. My gut, based on direct work with these women and on having experienced this ambivalence myself, was that there was more to this issue than imposter syndrome and confidence—and that in fact labeling it as such felt insulting, invalidating, and inaccurate.

This led to me interviewing women about their lived experiences about their leadership journey and also interviewing gender equity experts about how organizations can transform leadership development for women. I also wanted to focus on better understanding confounding complicating factors for women with intersecting identities that lead to additional biases and discrimination in the workforce (e.g., hidden medical challenges such as fertility and breast cancer, experiences of racism and ageism on top of sexism).

After two years of interviews, a number of themes emerged that helped me understand why my clients experienced reluctance or ambivalence—and the themes felt much more accurate and more aligned with the research from non-business fields, such as social, clinical, counseling, and educational psychology. Here are the themes that emerged.

Challenges and Ambivalence Women Experience When Considering Leadership Opportunities

The most consistent outcome of these interviews was that when women express ambivalence, less ambition, or less confidence, it often comes from negative experiences and messages they have had across their lives. Women’s expression of confidence or ambition is often met with negative judgments and biased messages that they are being too “self-promoting,” even selfish, and that it’s off-putting for a woman to not be in a nurturing role.

Over time, they learn to lessen their expression of ambition and instead focus on the behaviors that are enforced by societal norms: supporting others to succeed at the sacrifice of their personal goals. Thus, initial ambition can easily turn into wise ambivalence when you aren’t sure you will succeed in an environment not set up to bring out your best.

Here are the themes that emerged from these interviews and the opportunities for organizations that want to retain their top talent.

  1. Isolation and lack of support: Women in leadership roles often feel isolated, especially when facing personal challenges such as undergoing fertility treatment or breast cancer treatment, which continue to be hidden from sight. There's a lack of understanding, empathy, and privacy, making it difficult for them to seek support. In fact, despite the option being offered in many organizations, women are less likely to feel empowered to take advantage of flexible working arrangements due to concerns about the perception of their commitment.
  2. Gender bias and intersectionality: Unconscious gender bias persists in various fields, especially traditionally male-dominated fields such as in STEM and tech industries, impacting women's advancement. Additionally, intersectionality factors compound challenges for women, including disability, ageism, and having multiple marginalized identities.
  3. Work-life balance and well-being: Balancing additional responsibilities such as managing medical care or childcare alongside leadership roles requires comprehensive support systems at work. Organizations need to recognize the importance of employee well-being for engagement and inclusion.
  4. Ageism and gendered ageism: Ageism affects both genders but is often gendered, impacting women's career opportunities more than men’s. It seems to be the most ignored of the protected classes. Combatting gendered ageism requires education, mentorship, equal opportunities, and organizational initiatives.
  5. Identity, accessibility, and inclusivity: For women of color, a sense of belonging and seeing diversity in leadership were crucial factors. For women with disabilities or chronic illness, it’s about ensuring there are additional considerations, policies, and accommodations offered, not only in the workplace but also at sponsored events.
  6. Motivations beyond traditional notions of power: None of the women interviewed expressed desires for traditional forms of power or dominance. Instead, their motivations revolved around personal growth, impact, and alignment with their values. Importantly, everything these leaders accomplished did, in fact, lead to more power and prestige as outcomes. However, those outcomes were not the initial expressed motivations for seeking leadership roles.

What Organizations Can Do to Retain Women and Offer Opportunities for Advancement

  1. Train for better allyship, mentorship, and sponsorship skills: Bridging the gap in mentorship, sponsorship, and allyship, at work and at home, is essential for gender equity. This involves addressing workplace resistance and cultural stigmas and providing resources for those with less visible impairments and barriers. Effective sponsorship and mentorship are crucial for women's leadership journeys. Sponsorship, in particular, which involves advocacy and promotion, can have a transformative impact when built on authentic relationships.
  2. Tailor opportunities to individual motivations: For both individuals and companies, knowing the factors that positively challenge and motivate them is essential. Understanding the diverse motivators for leadership roles is crucial for companies aiming to recruit and retain successful women, especially those with additional marginalized identities. This includes getting to know the top performers and aligning leadership roles with their personal interests, values, strengths, and leadership styles. Many women noted the significance of personal values such as preserving self-identity, pride, respect, integrity, striving for excellence, and being recognized for those things. Not everyone experiences financial bonuses or promotions as the final desired outcome. Consider how organizational policies and flexible options can help all employees.
  3. Debias leadership job descriptions: Avoid gender-stereotyped language in job descriptions. Research has shown that the words you use in job descriptions could be repelling or attracting candidates. Some words have more “male” or “female” connotations (e.g., “aggressive” and “risk-taking” vs. “supporting”). Adjusting the recruitment language can increase the chance that a position description aligns with someone’s personal values or what drives them, so they can see themselves in that kind of role.
  4. Support parenting and equal parenting at work: Men's engagement in supporting gender equity, particularly in parenting and caregiving roles, positively impacts organizational inclusion metrics as well as employees’ lives. Promoting engaged fatherhood and equal parenting benefits all employees.
  5. Measure organizational support and culture: Organizations must proactively measure and plan for advancing women in leadership, including creating supportive re-entry programs and observing market needs.
  6. Increase mental health awareness and support: High-achievement cultures and the pressure to constantly prove oneself can lead to burnout and mental health problems for women. Organizations need to increase awareness of mental health conditions, reduce stigma, and prioritize employees' quality of life.
  7. Appreciate identity and recognition: Women's self-perception of identity as leaders is complicated, especially for those with multiple marginalized identities. Women's experiences, achievements, and challenges, particularly in male-dominated industries, need to be recognized and valued by organizations.
  8. Offer identity-affirming leadership development programs: Stop offering programs that aim to fix women’s "faults" (i.e., “fix-her” programs) and start offering programs that acknowledge that leadership is a social identity as much as gender, race, age, and other demographics in how we perceive and evaluate them. This must be an important part of the experience.
  9. Prioritize engagement over time: Many women have multiple competing demands at work and home as a result of the invisible emotional labor they provide. For many, that experience has in fact helped them become more effective and efficient in meeting productivity metrics. Reward them for that effectiveness and efficiency by evaluating their outcomes and engagement rather than how much time they spend sitting at their workstation (i.e., an outdated model of productivity).
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