What Keeps High Achieving Women from Choosing Executive Positions

What Keeps High Achieving Women from Choosing Executive Positions

Do the women have to start from scratch in defining “who am I” or are there studies that can help them articulate how they see themselves in relation to their work today? Although there are many self-help books that describe destructive personality styles of women in today’s workplace and then advise women on what they should and shouldn’t do to succeed, few research studies have been published on the presentation strategies of women at work in the 21st century. As mentioned in this review, psychological factors (personal priorities, satisfaction and self-esteem) and social factors (upbringing, cultural and organizational norms and family demands) have been the focus of most research on women in the workplace. Yet evidence on how these factors shape particular, observable and replicable behavior patterns of the second generation of women leaders in the workplace is scarce.

One of the well-known studies that identified a particular self-presentation in high-achieving women was done by Clance and Imes (1978). They identified the “imposter phenomenon” among women who were either respected professionals in their fields or who were recognized for their academic success. Despite their accomplishments, these women persisted in believing that they were really not bright and had fooled anyone who thought otherwise. They attributed their success to luck, timing, overestimation of abilities and faulty judgment by decision makers. (p. 241)

Overall, the women who demonstrated this phenomenon feared that they would be exposed and labeled as “imposters.” They worried that since they will never have sufficient knowledge, skills and ability to be good leaders, they would eventually be “found out” and ousted from their positions. They reported clinical symptoms of generalized anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression and frustration related to the inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement. (p. 242)

The study was done with primarily white, middle- to upper-class high-achieving women between the ages of 20 and 45 in academic and professional settings. Many studies have since been done that have identified the same phenomena in women in other work settings and in government positions (Fels, 2004) and in high-achieving women of color (Bell & Nkomo, 2001)

However, the social factors that Clance and Imes (1978) identified as helping to form this phenomenon have progressed over the past 30 years. Women who show independence and mastery are no longer viewed negatively in the U.S. (Wagner, et al., 2006) There are greater societal expectations for achievement in girls. Parents are better at building self-confidence in their daughters. These factors serve to strengthen self-reliance and self-expression in women.

However, as workplace discrimination is brought out in the open and the “think manager—think male” behaviors are uncovered (Sczesny, 2003), many women have replaced their fear with anger and their feelings of intimidation with actions of antagonism. (Hollands, 2002; Vohs & Heatherton, 2003)

As a result, many female leaders have grown out of the Imposter role into roles that have been given negative labels such as Bully Broad and Ice Queen (Holland, 2002) However, women displaying more aggressive, intimidating and impatient behaviors often test out as being similar to imposters psychologically. They still fear that they will never be able to meet the inflated expectations of their performances and they exhibit clinical symptoms of anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression and frustration. (p. 23-28) It is possible that these women are demonstrating the “superiority behaviors” of an inferiority complex (Adler, 1956)


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Marcia ReynoldsIn addition to coaching leaders in global companies, Dr. Marcia Reynolds travels the world speaking and teaching classes in advanced coaching skills, leadership and emotional intelligence. She is the author of 3 books and has been quoted in major online and print publications in the US and Europe.

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