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Three questions to help you take charge of your ascent to leadership

How women can find the power to positively influence their careers
6 min.
March 2019

Women are making headway in terms of access to and representation in leadership roles.  Consequently, organizations are discovering how and why diversity creates value, both in terms of creativity as well as profitability and long-term sustainability. Despite the progress of the past decades, the ratio of women to men in the C-suite – in even the most developed economies – is dismally low. In 2018, there were only 24 women CEOs leading FT500 companies. According to McKinsey’s 2018 Women in the Workplace report, “Women are less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs, and they are far less likely to be promoted into them – for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 79 women are.”

In addition to the systemic inequities that explain why women get left behind, a more recent stream of research sheds light on some of the more invisible barriers and unconscious biases that women face on their ascent to leadership. One of these barriers is the way women and their leadership behaviors are perceived and evaluated differently than those of their male counterparts. You don’t have to look far in the media to see how women in key professional positions can be scrutinized. Well-known and internationally accomplished human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, for example, may find that, despite her competence in her role, her colleagues label her differently. Time magazine writes: “Let’s face it: no matter how real Amal’s accomplishments are, the breathless celebration of her legal triumphs is just a thinly veiled infatuation with how she looks…”.

Rather than being taken by surprise at how you might be judged as a woman leader, it’s important to pre-empt such barriers and actively develop strategies to deal with them. Here are three questions (with answers, of course) to ask yourself on your leadership journey.

1. Does it really matter what others think of me?

Answer: Unfortunately, yes.

Whether you like it or not, the way that your colleagues perceive you plays an important role in both your ability to motivate and lead others and the informal power and influence that others grant you. How others perceive your competence as a leader is integral to being viewed as a “high potential” or a “future leader” in an organization.

As already mentioned, however, women in leadership face greater scrutiny from those around them, scrutiny that isn’t necessarily related to their competence or abilities. This scrutiny is a manifestation of one of the key challenges women leaders can face – the need to be seen as both warm and communal and tough and competent at work. Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, this can present a dilemma for women. On the one hand, deeply ingrained societal expectations tend to associate leadership competence with what can traditionally be considered more masculine traits, such as dominance, ambition and aggressiveness. On the other hand, women are traditionally expected to be warm, empathetic and communally oriented. This means that the natural tendency when thinking about who fits best with a leader role is immediately to “think manager, think male”. This also creates a double-bind for women: Women who are caring are seen as less competent leaders, and women who are competent may be disliked as they violate societal expectations of what it means to be a woman.

The first step in managing this dilemma is to recognize that these role expectations exist and play out more prominently for women who are either on the leadership path or have newly acquired roles of authority. You may be someone who likes a “let’s-get-down-to-it” pragmatic approach to leading, but your team may expect you to demonstrate a more collegial and empathetic style. Or, you may be seen as too warm or collaborative in your role, when your people expect their leader to demonstrate more ambition and decisiveness. Stay attuned to these expectations and factor them into your delivery style, even if it seems unfair that these expectations apply less to your male counterparts.

We are not suggesting that you become overwhelmed with worry about how you come across to others, but rather that you be aware of the potential challenges, so you can proactively handle them.

2. How do I build my inner resilience?

Answer: It’s all about your mindset.

The perceptions of others often create an internal tension within women leaders: How do I be both “nice” and “tough” in my leadership role? To be seen as competent, do I have to minimize my “femininity”? Must I pretend I’m not a mother when I walk through the doors of my office? Having to downplay one side at the cost of the other can potentially create an internal conflict.

One way you (and ideally, the entire organization) can overcome these barriers is by developing a paradox mindset. A paradox mindset is about thinking of these situations not in terms of “either-or” but “both-and”. You can be both self-confident and empathetic; you can be both aggressive about your team’s results and mentor or coach them about their work with warmth and friendship. Embrace the fact that the feminine attributes of your gender and the masculine attributes of your role fit well together to create a strong identity that is “the authentic you”. Doing so will help build your inner resilience and boost your leadership effectiveness. It will also help you to lead confidently without feeling like an imposter.

3. Do I have any control over how others see me?

Answer: This one, fortunately, is yes.

There are a number of different strategies you can use to ensure your leadership competence is both noticed and valued at work. Our research shows that one important strategy is accessing and developing relationships with sponsors and mentors. Sponsors and mentors are powerful influencers in the organization who will advocate for your success and can help champion you as a leader. These relationships are especially helpful when you are starting a new role, particularly in a new organization as they help you build informal power and authority throughout the organization.

We recommend that you invest some time in identifying potential sponsors early on. Cultivate these relationships and build your network while demonstrating your value to the organization through results. Once you have developed trust with a sponsor, do not shy away from sharing your leadership ambition and potential; their advocacy can open doors to new challenges and help you access resources both inside and outside the organization.

The ascent to leadership is exciting yet it comes with challenges. In the long run, we must tackle systemic change to alleviate these conflicting expectations for women leaders. However, by anticipating some of the more invisible tensions you may face, and by building your psychological and behavioral toolkit, you can have the power to positively influence your career.


Alyson Meister is a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Mahwesh Khan is Research Associate at IMD

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