Why Are Some Women Still Holding Back?

By Beverly Jones

Lately I keep finding myself in conversations about how women aren’t moving confidently into leadership within their careers. I’ve heard some worries from clients, but I’ve also encountered a rising tide of talk in other business and social venues.

This doesn’t seem to be just an us-against-them, women-versus-men thing. Insightful men have expressed concern that too few women are reaching their full professional potential. For example, two male professors recently asked me why their star female students seem to have lower job aspirations than their less qualified male classmates?

And in recent months, both at formal industry conferences and in casual chats, some of the most accomplished American women journalists have been talking about how leading newsrooms still seem to be dominated by a male culture. This seems to be the case, in both print and digital realms, despite the fact university journalism programs often have more women than men students.

Also, disturbingly, young women in several career discussions this spring told me they feel more threatened than supported by women who are senior to them in their organizational hierarchies.

Part of the problem may relate back to those of us who were among the first women to enter many professions. Sometimes we were more wounded than we realized by the struggle, and our lingering discomfort may continue to influence the wider culture of women at work.

It wasn’t fun to be on teams where we weren’t really wanted. And despite years of achievement, we “old girls” still experience surprising lapses in confidence. It can show up in little ways, such as:

  • Self-deprecating speech. We may undercut our commanding presence by repeatedly using phrases like “I think,” when a simple statement or request would be stronger.
  • Risk aversion. When law, engineering and MBA programs were first opened to women, female students might hear, “It’s important that you get all A’s so the faculty will let in more women next year.” Tiresome speeches like this sometimes translated to an unrealistic sense of responsibility, which was particularly painful if we felt like we were just hanging on. This is one reason some of us were too slow to take breakout career risks.
  • Apologizing. When we felt unwelcome in the first place, some of us became too inclined to say “sorry,” even when we weren’t at fault. It was tempting to waste time and energy blaming ourselves when things weren’t going well. For some, it is still a challenge to face problems quickly and move on to solutions.
  • Bad hair days. Appearance often seems to matter more for women than for men. So we sometimes overreact if we don’t feel at our best. It was like that when we were young, and today our appearance may seem overly important because women who don’t seem put together could be dismissed as too old.

Many women who fought for professional acceptance decades ago, and went on to success after success, say they still experience surprising flashes of uncertainty. We wanted to push the doors wide open for the future generations of female careerists. But is it possible that we also have burdened them with some of our lingering insecurities?

Yes, we have come a long way. But there’s still work to be done before we can count on an American workplace where gender seldom limits opportunities for growth. Here are things we can do:

  • Keep talking. There’s an absence of good research and nobody truly understands the factors that add up to the lingering glass ceiling in so many sectors. Let’s acknowledge the problem and keep up the dialogue, as we try to better understand it. This might mean new kinds of groups or workshops, or simply raising the discussion wherever we happen to be.
  • Create new forms of mentoring. Since the 1970s, feminist activists have looked to mentoring programs as a way to move women smoothly up career ladders. Some programs have worked well but others have floundered, sometimes burdened with over-blown expectations. It’s time to invent new ways of engaging, perhaps including reciprocal programs, where women of all ages can teach each other across generations and skill sets about everything from communicating with colleagues to managing social media.
  • Get over it. Our language patterns and ways we hesitate have become habits. We can move beyond them. One way to change long-held patterns, and model new ones, is to recruit friends to notice how we speak and carry ourselves. With our permission, friendly coaches can remind us when it’s time to reword our statements, or reshape our attitudes, in more positive ways.