It shouldn’t come as a surprise (especially to women) that women who lead or aspire to lead teams face challenges on the climb up the corporate ladder. Yet despite these hurdles, women persist. A GrantThornton Women in Business 2022 report indicates that women held 32% of top leadership positions in 2022, up from 31% in 2021 and 21% in 2012.
There are two ways to read these numbers. On a glass-half-full note, representation is trending upward. But here’s the equally valid glass-half-empty perspective: these numbers could be (and should be) much higher.
It’s not just women who benefit from businesses being proactive in boosting the number of women in leadership roles. Orgs with strong female representation in leadership are more successful overall — boasting improved workplace wellness and better DEI. Additionally, when women step into leadership roles, more doors open and more ceilings shatter for the women following in those trail-blazing footsteps.
If you’re on your own journey to the top, or still finding your footing in a leadership role, here are six tips for excelling against the odds.
Tips for Women Who Lead
1. Practice a leadership mindset.
Asma Afreen, Product Marketing Lead at Mailmodo, says the first thing to do when aspiring toward leadership is to “see yourself as a leader in the making.” Envision your career goal and then take the steps to make it happen, which might include acting like a leader even if that’s not listed in your job description.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an intern or a senior manager, you can always add value by just leaning in, taking up responsibility, and over-delivering,” Afreen adds.
Of course, this is much harder to do if you don’t feel safe speaking up or motivated by the culture to go beyond your basic responsibilities. Companies looking to help women shine should focus on building a psychologically safe workplace, which is especially important for enhancing opportunities for underrepresented groups.
2. Don’t let perfectionism and self-doubt stand in your way.
Common roadblocks to women’s success are perfectionism and a fear of failure. These inhibitors keep women from taking risks and pursuing opportunities they may perceive as beyond their reach. This explains why women tend to only apply for positions they are 100% qualified for, while men will apply for roles they are 60% qualified for. When you doubt your potential and assume failure, you limit your opportunities for advancement and your chance to learn and grow from setbacks.
This can lead to an ongoing cycle of preparing versus doing, which can stall career advancement.
While easier said than done, it’s important to let go of perfectionism and quiet one’s inner critic. As CEO & Founder of Softjourn, Emmy Gengler, shares, “If I were to give advice to my younger self, it would be: Don’t doubt yourself! Additionally, I’d advise myself, and other young entrepreneurs, that you do not need to have a lot of experience before you put yourself out there.”
3. Don’t let the skeptics grind you down.
Perfectionism can be one of the hardest roadblocks we set for ourselves, but skepticism can be one of the hardest challenges we face from others. Though we prefer to live in a world free from stereotypes, research shows that when people think of “managers” they are more likely to think of men, and that women still battle the perception of being “too emotional” to be effective decision-makers.
To this point, co-founder of GoodBee Plumbing Allison Harrison, offers this advice: “To be a leader, you have to be okay with the mentality that not everyone will like you, and that’s okay. As a woman in a typically male-dominated field, I had to overcome the skeptics, but I was able to do so by believing in myself, pushing myself to do my best, and instead of letting a failure define me, using it as motivation to succeed the next time.”
4. Nurture your confidence.
In her Forbes article, “Woman-to-Woman Leadership Advice,” author and leadership expert Carol Kinsey Gorman reveals that most women who lead struggle with confidence. Fortunately, confidence can be practiced and improved with time.
Her top tip for building more confidence is to recognize and log daily successes. That means writing down every victory, from the small to not-so-small, and then reviewing that list at the end of the week.
This offers hard proof of the many things you have to be proud of (silencing whatever negative self-talk you may have) and can come in handy when it comes time to advocate for that next big promotion or opportunity….
5. Project leadership through language.
In her book, Play Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, & Lead, Tara Mohr advises women not to overlook the power of language in conveying either competence or self-doubt. Mohr writes, “Most women I know feel great pressure — sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious — to say what they really want to say, while also adhering to feminine norms of being “nice,” ever flexible, ever conciliatory, ever calm.”
Women often use language hedges like “just,” “kind of,” or “almost” as a way to soften a message, but the communication can come across as unnecessarily apologetic or unsure. Employees will rally behind vulnerable leaders, but they may hesitate to trust leaders who don’t seem to trust themselves.
Pro tip: over the next few days, be attentive to word hedges. If you find yourself saying something like: “I’m just wondering…” or “I’m kind of concerned about this…”, eliminate the hedge words and say this instead: “I’m wondering…” and “I’m concerned about this…” When the words we say project certainty and confidence, we begin to embody those traits as well.
6. Make your work visible.
Studies show that men are more comfortable asking for higher pay and a more senior title at job interviews, while women are more likely to ask for less and rely on proving themselves as a path toward advancement. However, many women soon discover that simply doing “good work” won’t get them far if no one ever sees it.
We talk about it a lot at The Forem: self-advocacy is key to leveling up. If key decision-makers are unaware of someone’s positive impact on an organization, they are not likely to rally behind their promotion. To the same point, when women vocalize their accomplishments, they are more likely to set themselves up for advancement.
However, according to Mohr, “research shows that women incur social costs for advocating for themselves too strongly; they are seen as less likable by those around them, especially by other women.” This may cause some women to second-guess standing up for themselves…but it’s high time we moved beyond that stigma.
Mohr advises women to reframe self-promotion as visibility in service to others. For instance, if you’ve learned to do something new through your accomplishments, that information could benefit someone else. This is thinking like a good leader: you focus on how you can help others more than you help yourself.
Want to dive deeper? The Forem offers a variety of training programs to help women scale their impact and excel as leaders. Reach out to learn more from a member of our team.
Extra credit reading while you’re on a roll…