What Holds Women Back

I have been coaching for over ten years. I’ve coached women and I’ve coached men. The things that my female coaching clients are struggling with are completely different than those of my male coaching clients. After reading How Women Rise and Burnout, I’m starting to realize that there is a pattern to the obstacles that many women face. 

Here are my thoughts on what holds many women back:


Humans are not perfect but it doesn’t mean we don’t try, sometimes at great lengths, to be perfect. As written by the Nagoskis in Burnout, “You have the goal of ‘perfection’ which is an impossible goal, as you start the project or the meal or the outfit or the day, and then something falls short of ‘perfect’, the whole thing is ruined. And sometimes if your goal is ‘perfect’, some part of you already knows it’s an impossible goal, so you think about your project, or meal, or outfit or day, knowing you’re never going to achieve your goal; so you feel hopeless before you’ve even begun.” So many of my clients are setting expectations that are completely unachievable. Perhaps it’s the hurt of negative feedback that makes us set our expectations to unachievable heights. Or we remember our parents admonishing us for falling short on our third-grade math test and promise to do better, or it’s airbrushed Good Housekeeping photos that create an unattainable goal of the perfect dish or bedroom suite. Let in the wabi-sabi and perhaps just do the “trying your best” approach. As written in How Women Rise under Habit 7: The Perfection Trap, “Perfectionists usually struggle with delegation. If you have super-exacting standards, it stands to reason that you would have difficulty letting others do their jobs. And monitoring people’s efforts is time-consuming.” Accept not being perfect.


Most of my clients who are women sit around waiting around for others to notice their accomplishments and rarely, if ever, claim them themselves. It seems so utterly unfeminine to boast about how great you are. In How Women Rise this falls under Habit 1: Reluctance to Claim Your Achievements and Habit 2: Expecting Others to Notice and Reward. Women, including myself, typically don’t want to be seen as the braggart down the hall who is always claiming their victories, no matter how small. And we can sit around and wait for someone to come along and suddenly realize all the achievements we’ve had and expect someone else to notice and reward it. I would consider this all humility and humility is not good marketing. I have coached many women who are terrified that they are really imposters and will be “found out” and terminated. These are women who have had tremendous success in their careers and are surprised when their boss call’s them a “rock star” or puts them up for promotion. The secret is to acknowledge and own your achievements and, please, please, please, do not contradict if someone acknowledges your achievement.


In the book Burnout, this is called Human Giver Syndrome. This is partially defined as, “Believing you have a moral obligation – that you owe it to the world – to be happy, calm, pretty, generous, and attentive to the needs of others. Givers may spend years attending to the needs of others, while dismissing their own stress generated in response to witnessing those needs. The result is uncountable incomplete stress response cycles accumulating in our bodies. This accumulation leads to ‘compassion fatigue’”. In How Women Rise, it’s Habit 8: The Disease to Please, “If you’re a chronic pleaser, chances are you know it. And you are probably aware of how it holds you back. Maybe you routinely say yes to task and jobs that you know will eat up your time but bring you little benefit.” I have countless clients who have a very difficult time saying no and mounting overwhelm from the accumulated stress. If you want ideas on how to complete the stress cycle, read this. Find ways to say no and to make space to close your stress cycle. Pleasing others long-term will likely hold you back and exhaust you.


In How Women Rise, Habit 3: Overvaluing Expertise, “Trying to master every detail of your job in order to become an expert is a great strategy for keeping the job you have. But if your goal is to move to a higher level, your expertise is probably not going to get you there. In fact, mastery of your current role often serves as a useful strategy for keeping yourself in your current role.” In my career, I can think of countless men that were promoted who were clueless on the details of the jobs that reported to them. A woman isn’t going to even apply for a job that she doesn’t feel that she knows at least 80% of. A man? He’ll apply if he’s got 20% of the skills. There is no problem in being an expert at what you do especially if you find the job fulfilling and want to stay where you are. If you want to move up? You’ll have to let go of some of the details and accept that delegation will need to be part of your success. If you want to rise, let go of being the expert.

I think back to when my son was making a cake over a decade ago. The cake batter was all wrong. I wanted to take over. He demanded, “Let me fail.” It has many of these parts wrapped up in that statement. I wanted to be the cake expert, I wanted to please him by taking over and I wanted it to be perfect. I had to let go and walk into another room and let the mistake unfold or not. It went against every instinct in my body. Perhaps I am hardwired this way as a woman but I am trying my best to rise and move beyond.

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