HomeLearning CenterWhy High-Potential Women Are Ambivalent about Leadership

Why High-Potential Women Are Ambivalent about Leadership

Originally published by Mira Brancu for Psychology Today

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.

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