Women’s Empowerment is an Inside Job

Women’s Empowerment is an Inside Job

Cultivating inclusive, innovative cultures… one woman leader at a time.

We are at a critical juncture. Between the uprising of aspiring women leaders on the political front in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and the recent backlash in Silicon Valley against gender bias in the tech space, we are witnessing an unprecedented number of women who are now heeding the call to lead.

Not surprisingly, this trend has been followed by an increase in training programs, organizations and other support structures dedicated to women’s empowerment popping up around the globe. Organizations like She Should Run, an incubator that helps women run for political office, have seen an exponential increase in participation over the past twelve months. Meanwhile, women-specific conferences like Emerging Women Live, TED Women, and Women in Technology International are taking place in every major US city.

As a collective, this demonstrates that we are not only committed to decreasing the gender gap, but also to increasing the impact that women will have on our shared future in the twenty-first century.

All in all, the future is looking bright. The number of female CEO’s in the Fortune 1000 has reached an all-time high, and many of these leaders have garnered immense respect from both the public and their employees.

What’s more, recent studies demonstrate that companies run by female CEOs have at least matched – and at best outperformed – the broader global market over the past eight years, (according to an analysis by the bank Nordea of nearly 11,000 companies globally). And, on average, women leaders tend to receive higher effectiveness ratings from their bosses, peers and subordinates.

If these trends continue, we could be well our way to a world where women experience the same privileges to impact and influence our society as men. Imagine a world in which bright and talented female candidates could be assured a seat at the table – a world in which they’d be looking across that table at other bright individuals, of all genders, who trusted in their competence and felt fulfilled in their ability to contribute at work.

Yet these breakthroughs are not spread evenly. Huge disparities still exist both within and across industries with regards to both the number and influence of women in leadership roles.

Spending the last twelve years coaching women who were striving to advance in the workplace has brought me to one conclusion: The technologies we use to support these women are not fully effective. Our training and mentoring approaches have not fully caught up with the level of passion we have behind our desire to close the gap.

As a general rule, most women’s leadership programs focus on teaching the concrete, external-facing professional and life skills needed to advance in a leadership role. Networking. Speaking up. Public speaking. Negotiation. Productivity. In other words, leaning in.

Or, they are designed to address the real cultural and structural problems, like gender bias, that lead to inequity in the workplace. They focus on creating right conditions for empowerment. Yet they don’t teach women how to make real use of the new opportunities that get created.

Both of these approaches are useful. They are great steps that need to be taken in order for the tides to turn. And they are not easy. Gathering the resources and taking the actions that each of these strategies alone require can be a mighty effort.

Unfortunately, each of these strategies is inherently incomplete – and the results reflect it. The learning just doesn’t seem to stick. Or progress is made, but then backslides after just a few months. I hear stories like, “I feel better in the moment, but I don’t get the promotion and I’m back to square one.” Or, “ I got the raise, but I’m burning myself out in the new job and want to quit.”

What’s happening here?

I believe it is impossible to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s partially informed solutions. A complete solution to advancing the number of women in leadership – and increasing their impact on their organizations at large – will require a complete approach.  The real story is more complex and less appealing than the glossy, Facebook-friendly version of progress would suggest.

Creating the “conditions” for empowerment is not enough. In order for real, lasting change to take place, all sides need to change. The outside and the inside. The hopelessness and the false hope. The powerful and the oppressed.

In an early study on learned helplessness (which eventually, in roundabout way, fueled the entire modern day Positive Psychology movement), Dr. Martin Seligman and his colleagues delivered an electric shock to a dog in a closed cage until the dog stopped trying to get out. Then, the door was opened and another round of shocks were delivered. (Terrible for the dog. Useful for our learning.)

The dog still didn’t leave the cage. Having learned through experience that there was no possibility of achieving a different outcome through its own effort, the dog ultimately lost interest in trying – perhaps even lost its ability to do so. In some ways, the very women we are aiming to empower with our current, incomplete strategies, are facing the same challenge.

I know. This is not a popular view. And by no means do I mean to suggest that women are helpless. But it helps to answer the million-dollar question: “why isn’t it working?”

To understand how this plays out in human beings, we can look to research from neuroscience, resilience, and trauma. When faced with a life circumstance that is less than ideal, the human mind – and body – learns to shape itself in alignment with that reality. We unconsciously adjust our habits, and even our personality, to get the best possible results given the conditions that surround us.

We learn how to sacrifice our dignity for a sense of safety. Self-respect for sustained connection. Belonging for the appearance of competence, which ultimately generates praise.

The shaping is deep. And, after enough time goes by, we become like the fish in water – we no longer see the impact it has on us until the costs become high. For some of us, these unconscious strategies have dictated our approach to leadership for ten, twenty, even thirty plus years. They’ve held us back from making it to the top. Or, they’ve helped us get there, but simultaneously stifled our ability to experience true celebration and joy in the process.

The trauma that comes from showing up as a woman in a workplace where barriers, bias and discrimination have existed in the past continues to live inside of us, even when “things have changed.” In order to break through the internalized glass ceiling, each woman needs to shift her own relationship with that trauma before she can truly be free.

My aim in calling out these patterns is to make the case that a deeper healing orientation must become a part of the long-term solutions we pursue in the leadership development space. Healing doesn’t have be dramatic, scary, or office-inappropriate. It simply means acknowledging that the human operating system is both self-preserving and resilient. And it means using the right tools to invoke real transformation, rather than putting a band-aid over the problem, or feeling frustrated when all apparent roadblocks are gone and nothing has changed.

We might both agree that workplace culture is evolving. Yet, I encourage you to sincerely consider where it’s evolving from. I invite you to take stock of your own workplace culture in the past, and ask the tough questions about what “work arounds” were required in order for people to succeed, to be seen, and to belong. I challenge you take seriously the real emotional leap each person (man, woman or other) needs to make now, in order to heal the old behavioral imprints and trust the new culture enough to develop new habits that align with the desired future state.

What’s more, I encourage you to hold the investment in people development as a necessary line item in the budget – one that supports the very human process of healing and re-shaping, over the real amount of time that it takes to change.

In the discourse of embodied leadership, we say that transformation has taken place when an individual (or a collective) can take new actions, under pressure, at least 80% of the time.

A lunch-and-learn on the topic of women’s empowerment may get the ball rolling. The sustained practice of “power posing” in the bathroom can provide a confidence boost in a meeting that directly follows.  An executive training on gender bias paves the way for new concrete opportunities. Yet the pathway to real, sustainable transformation lies in a coherent, multi-faceted approach that acknowledges the neuro-biology and physiology of human development.

Through this type of complete solution, we can successfully address the daily experience and ultimate impact of women within our organizations.

At Leading in Motion, we specialize in building training programs that address unconscious, internal roadblocks, and help leaders at all levels activate their potential. Together with our clients, we are cultivating more inclusive and innovative cultures… one woman leader at a time.

In our free assessment and practice guide The Four Habits of an Activated Women Leader, I define the four areas where most women – even senior level women – carry baggage that prevents them from owning their full impact as leaders.  The guide includes a brief assessment tool, as well as a how-to guide with four simple practices, all based in neuro-science, that our clients and their teams have helped us perfect over the past decade.

In a recent 6-month training program for a large government organization, we helped 30% of participants get promoted before the end of the program. At a Silicon Valley bio-tech startup, we helped the firm retain and promote three early-career women who were at risk of moving on. They are now among the firm’s top performers, and are committed to mentoring their incoming female colleagues as the firm continues to grow.

Here’s what one client had to say in an anonymous survey about our recent work together:

The Leading in Motion women’s program is like a deep dive into who you really are – and who you want to be. It’s an opportunity to be open and honest about your gifts and gaps, while learning to support other women. The experience will change how you feel about yourself, about leadership and about women’s issues over all. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!

I’m passionate about this conversation, and I would love to connect with leaders – of all genders – in diverse organizations who are committed to making the leap.

If you are ready to tackle the deeper healing needed to end the gender gap in your organization, or if you just want help to take stock of what roadblocks still exist, drop me a line at leeann@leadinginmotion.com to set up a discovery call.

With love, rigor, and an eye for the future,


PS – if this article speaks to you, please help spread the word by sharing!


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