The Unique Challenges of Women in Leadership

AdVance Leadership » The Unique Challenges of Women in Leadership

Welcome to Friday 411, issue #032. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll gain deeper insight into the unique challenges of women in leadership. 


1 Insight 

Sometimes, female leaders encounter their own set of leadership issues that coworkers and organizations may not consider. Anyone’s leadership can be strengthened by exploring the commonalities of what it can be like for a woman to lead. 



My First Leadership Position 


I clenched the steering wheel, my mind reeling in confusion. I could not believe the words I had just heard from the man in the passenger seat beside me. When we’re in this meeting, keep your mouth shut. Let me do all the talking. 


I was the one who had organized this meeting. I had included him in the meeting. It was my meeting. 


I had been thrust unexpectedly into my first paid leadership role out of college. I thought I had accepted an administrative support position. But my supervisor informed me that they needed a Director, someone to make decisions and take ownership and action. The organization handed me the title and responsibility, along with a $1 million budget and 125 people to oversee, without a compensation or benefit increase.


It soon became clear that our relationship with a partner organization was not healthy. I wanted to  remedy that. I had called a meeting in an attempt to reestablish our “us and them” mentality to just an “us.” 


When this man caught wind of our meeting, he insisted on joining. And now he was in the passenger seat of my car, saying the words, When we’re in this meeting, keep your mouth shut. 


I had not been raised to keep my mouth shut. 


Throughout my childhood, my father had been in leadership at a large state university. He helped shape my view of women in leadership in three ways: 

  1. He repeated to me often, you can do what I do. You have everything it takes. 
  2. He treated and talked about the women he worked with with honor, dignity, and respect, esteeming them just as highly as his male coworkers. (Sometimes higher.) 
  3. Anytime he had the opportunity to include me in his leadership, he did. I accompanied him to Take Our Daughters to Work days and partnered with him in hosting VIPs when my mother was unavailable. 


In addition, I had a unique church experience. I have read and heard too many horror stories of girls being raised in churches where they were:  

  • Put in their place for their gender.  
  • Only under the authority of male leaders. 
  • Taught that their voices should not be heard. 
  • Subjected to sexism shrouded under the veil of poorly interpreted scripture. 


This was not my experience. I was raised in a church that: 

  • Recognized the leadership capabilities of women. 
  • Allowed me to witness my own mother serving in leadership roles. 
  • Gave women the same titles as their male counterparts. 
  • Called me out as a leader at a young age and provided me with opportunities to practice my leadership. 


And now, here I was, after all that practice, getting ready to unleash my leadership in my first paid leadership role. And the man in my passenger seat was saying, Keep your mouth shut. 


I did not keep my mouth shut. 


But I did understand for the first time what it felt like for a man to make it clear that my voice had no value. To ensure I understood my place. To feel like I was not allowed to lead.  


My fellow females, I am so sorry to those of you who felt this at an earlier age than I. That message must have sunk into the deepest recesses of your impressionable hearts and seared itself there. I know this must be true because of our work at AdVance Leadership with female leaders. With women in leadership roles, we have run into the same obstructive obstacle over and over again:   

The vast majority of women struggle to call themselves a “leader.” 


The word leader carries a lot of baggage. It feels like a masculine word, dressed in a suit and knotted with a tie. It drips with the assumptions of authority and self-assuranceIt moves in cerebral circles of thinking and logic. It flees from emotion and feeling and heart. Its voice is rich and confident and certainly an octave deeper than any of us could muster. 


That may be the image the word “leader”creates. But is it an accurate illustration of what a leader should be? 


Here is how we define “leader” at AdVance Leadership: 


A leader is someone who sees a clear, preferred, and desired future, gathers others around that future, and mobilizes others to create that future. 


A leader is someone who: 

1) sees,  

2) gathers, and  

3) mobilizes. 


In theory, all these actions can be done equally and effectively by a man or a woman. I will take the liberty to speak on behalf of my fellow female leaders: We can see a clear, preferred, and desired future. We’re ready to tell you about it. But gathering and mobilizing people requires one thing that, historically, men have had greater access to: 




We, women who lead, are ready to tell you about a clear, preferred, and desired future. But are you ready to hear us? 


If you are ready to empower female voices to lead, look for next week’s Friday 411. I’ll cover 5 actions you can take to empower women to lead. Here’s a sneak peek: 


  1. Raise daughters to exercise their voices. 
  2. Advocate for representation.  
  3. Create safe environments for women to speak. 
  4. Recognize stay-at-home parenting as leadership development. 
  5. If you are a female leader, support other female leaders. 

1 Action 

Get to know the female leaders around you. Do they struggle to call themselves a “leader?” What has their leadership journey been like? Do they feel like their voice is valued? Do they ever feel silenced? What is their vision for a clear, preferred, and desired future? If there are no female leaders around you, that’s a problem. 



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