Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Leadership Myth That Holds Women Back

Someone's work doesn't always speak for itself, even if it should.

Key points

  • In leadership, gender parity makes slow progress. At this rate, it will take 130 years for women leader numbers to equal their male counterparts.
  • There is a common myth that "my work should speak for itself"—in most cases, it doesn’t, and women can miss out on career advancement.
  • You can challenge this limiting belief and create more helpful success strategies to become more visible and progress in your career.
Source: Antonioguillem/123rf

We've just celebrated International Women's Day and Women's History Month—and although there is much to congratulate, there is still more to do. The proportion of women in senior management globally, including leadership positions, has increased from 31 percent to 32 percent in 2022. And while that does give some cause for celebration, it’s still nowhere near parity with men.

In his International Women’s Day speech on March 8, 2022, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres shared data demonstrating that “at this rate, gender equality in top positions will take 130 years.” And that: “In all countries, women are scandalously under-represented in the halls of power and the boardrooms of business.”

The barriers are not just external. There is also a myth held by some women leaders I meet in my coaching practice: the limiting belief that "my work should speak for itself" and get them promoted. But clearly, there are many hardworking women producing excellent results who are still not being recognized and given the rewards they deserve. There still aren’t enough women leaders.

Why Parity in Leadership Matters

There is a variety of reasons why achieving parity and having more women in leadership positions is important. Since women make up half the population and are both consumers and purchasers in society, leveraging their skills, contributions, and voices makes sense. Also, according to U.S. enrollment data, 59.5 percent of college students are women; yet representation in senior management doesn’t reflect this.

Research speaks to the benefits for organizations of gender diversity in senior leadership, since gender diversity is linked to improved profitability and performance; leveraging talent; reflecting market and customer perspective, and increased innovation. For individuals, taking on bigger roles and having more impact is part of their self-actualization and self-efficacy.

What Holds Some Women Back From Leading?

Numerous reasons explain why we have fewer women leaders in political, corporate, public, and community spaces. Clearly, they don’t apply to every woman; however, for women I work with, there is often a unique combination of factors.

These include social, cultural, and gender norms and bias (for example, seeing leadership as a masculine trait); “second-generation” or unconscious bias; the "double bind," or the navigation required by women to get the right balance between competence and likeability; work-family conflict (women as the main caregiver for children and relatives); the "anytime, anywhere" imperative that leaders should be available and geographically mobile; sexual harassment and violence, ranging from sexual innuendo to assault. And personal choice.

In addition, unhelpful myths some women hold can also limit their access to, and participation in, leadership roles. One is particularly common and powerful.

“My Work Should Speak For Itself”

Women often come to my practice with a familiar, painful story. It is usually some variation of: “I am an accomplished, experienced professional who does great work—and my junior (male) colleague just got promoted to head the department! I can run circles around him, technically. What’s going on? I am so deflated and frustrated. I feel like quitting!”

When we unpack this, there is often a dangerous myth at play: "My work should speak for itself." The belief is that doing good work alone should be enough to get them promoted.

Now, to be fair, this success strategy likely worked in school and university—good work was rewarded with high grades. However, the recipe for success is much more complex in work and organizational life, where advancement—particularly into leadership positions—calls for a wider mix of skills and competencies, including the capacity to make yourself and your work visible.

Women who solely rely on the success strategies that served them throughout their education are at a disadvantage if they have not developed the skills and practice of making themselves, their work, and their leadership more visible.

Here’s what can you do.

Quick Wins

1. Challenge that limiting belief in order to replace it.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • How many times have I seen “my work should speak for itself” advance me (or anyone else) into a leadership role?

Taking a moment to reflect, you start to see the limitations of this success strategy. This creates space for developing other ways of being, knowing, and working.

  • How have others in my organization advanced in their careers?

Analyzing what they do to receive recognition/promotion adds organizational intelligence to your repertoire.

By looking at the strategies that succeed in your particular context, as opposed to what worked in the past, you can update this unsuccessful belief with something more helpful.

2. Add other tools and strategies to your leadership toolbox.

Ask yourself:

  • What could I do to speak up for my work/abilities, apart from doing my work well?
  • How visible am I, and my work? (Both inside and outside my team/department/organization.)
  • What do I need to do to amplify my leadership, and have more impact?

This is about developing skills and identifying opportunities to increase visibility. For example, more actively engaging with our connections can create more impact.

In education, our hard work spoke volumes, bringing reward and recognition. In the workplace, we also need to intentionally use our voice to promote our work, our teams, and ourselves. Having a more nuanced picture of what it means to succeed and advance at work—and developing the skills to make us more seen and heard are key to leadership success and having the impact that you would like in the world.

More from Palena R. Neale Ph.D, PCC
More from Psychology Today