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Women Leaders, Are You Doing Enough to Elevate Other Women?

June 19, 2019 Susie Kelleher

Many women are working hard to help advance women within their organizations, though what they may not realize is that they could be part of the problem.

Despite best intentions, women still struggle with their own biases, the biases of other women and men, and the impact of being marginalized themselves. All of this could be getting in the way of them helping other women succeed. This is the first of a three-part series where we will highlight many of the challenges women, organizations and communities face when it comes to advancing women leaders.

Development and Learning in Organizations published a study that suggests that 70% of women executives feel a woman boss in their office has bullied them, which has resulted in their personal growth being diminished. This all-too-common scenario is often referred to as Queen Bee Syndrome, and while experts continue to debate whether this phenomena exists, one thing is clear: The culture within our organizations and the hurdles women face in the workplace can often create an environment where women have to look out for themselves—to the potential detriment of other women.

When we see professional growth at the expense of a minority–or demonstrate it ourselves—it’s essential to examine our external environment and how that environment can potentially impact our internal thinking. Some research to consider as we tackle this challenge:

When there is minimal representation, women may distance themselves from other women.

When we advance in our careers, do we look back and reach to help others excel alongside us? Not necessarily, a report in the Personality and Social Psychology Review finds that when people from under-represented groups rise in the ranks of their organization, they may be more likely to distance themselves from their group. So, why is that?

When the presence of women is undervalued, women downplay their gender.

Here’s what diminishing the value of women in leadership looks like in action: A woman may say, “I am wired more like a man than a woman, and I think of myself as more like a man in many ways.” When women say this, they are often subconsciously trying to fit into the dominant group; they are trying to mitigate their differences.

When I first started my career, I found I was often the only woman on the team or just one of a few women voices in the room; naturally, I tried to align myself with the dominant group. The effect? I didn’t advocate for women (like me!) who were looking for champions–and opportunities to advance– because I was too busy focusing on my own ability to fit in.

There’s another big problem that arises when women try to emulate a more masculine leadership style and personality to minimize their difference; imperative feminine leadership styles become entirely devalued.

When we say we’re “more like men,” what are we really saying? That women don’t make good leaders? That in order to be a good leader, we must act like–or be–a man? Well, that would be bad for business!

Bottom Line: According to a 2018 McKinsey report, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity in executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. The McKinsey report is just one of multiple studies demonstrating the value and positive business impact of the presence of women in leadership. Diminishing or devaluing the strengths of women means we can’t take advantage of the many benefits that come from gender parity in the workplace, including, but not limited to, better business outcomes.

When there’s only one woman’s voice in the room, microaggressions are common.

That room with only one or two female voices? It can get pretty lonely. Here’s what that room often sounds like: A woman may make a statement that goes unnoticed or gets lost in the conversation. Two minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion–and everyone says, “that’s a great idea!”

I’ve seen this happen–and I’ve had this happen, and I am far from alone.

A recent McKinsey report found that women still experience gender-based microaggressions regularly. According to the research, 64% of women are still exposed to this form of discrimination, with women of color more than anyone else.

Microaggressions and Microinvalidations often go unnoticed and under-reported because they are much more subtle than overt sexism. But make no mistake; they have a real impact on our ability to lead others. Here’s how the stats from McKinsey further break down: 36% of the women in the study claimed to have had their judgement questioned in their area of expertise, as opposed to 27% of men; this figure rose to 40% for black women, and 37% for women who identify as lesbian.

Where do we go from here?

We can start by paying closer attention to our environments to truly understand how our culture may be contributing to thinking patterns or behaviors that affect our ability to advance as women–or to help empower other women.

Men, you can continually acknowledge and display the importance and positive impact of having diversity at all levels of leadership. Additionally, watch for and tactfully call-out microaggressions and microinvalidations that diminish marginalized groups.

When leaders and organizations intentionally work to create a culture of inclusion, women and other under-represented groups are able to advance and have the opportunity to positively impact everyone involved. With this knowledge in mind, we must understand how each of us fits into this equation and make a commitment to purposefully lead with inclusion in mind.

Ready for more? Join us at Linkage’s Global Institute for Leadership Development® (GILD) in Palm Desert, CA on September 16-19, 2019, where you can customize your experience through the “Leading Across Difference” Learning Track, designed to empower leaders with the unique skill-set they need to manage effectively across generational, ethnic, racial, gender, or other identity lines. You can also join us at the 20th Annual Women in Leadership Institute (WIL) on November 11-14, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona for a four-day immersive learning experience, designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace. 

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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