The Role of Self-Acceptance in the Development of Female Leaders

In the past decades, women have become an essential part of the workforce. There has also been a growing ambition demonstrated by women to take on senior positions, as the rate of female graduates from universities and graduate programs surpasses the rate of males. And when women actually are in leadership positions, studies have shown that their presence may even improve the overall performance of a company and can thereby be good for business. Nevertheless, despite being as capable as their male counterparts, women are globally relatively absent in corporate management positions. Only about nine percent of CEOs and managing directors globally are female. Hence, the absence of women in leadership is not due to a lack of capability. Besides structural and societal barriers, research suggests that women also encounter unique difficulties with self-esteem (valuing oneself based on perceived strengths) as well as with self-acceptance (valuing oneself regardless of alleged weaknesses).

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The aim of this section is, on the one hand, to briefly examine some external factors, such as societal pressures, and especially the internal factors, such as mental pressures of internalized expectations. They could provide an explanation of what hinders women to rise into the leadership of the corporate and political world. On the other hand, as the aforementioned notion of self-acceptance was defined and its effects on physical and mental health explained, this chapter is going to examine how this concept could be of use for women who aspire to become leaders in their professions.

Gender-specific Barriers to Career Progression

Role of the Social Context

A large number of studies have been conducted on the discriminatory factors and the issues of women in the workforce in general. Increasingly, research has also shed a light on women in leadership (and particularly the lack thereof). Towards this end, it is important to examine women’s social contexts in which they were brought up and work in. They are instrumental for their job opportunities as well as the development of their leadership potential. “Gendered patterns in the accumulation of career-relevant experiences accrue from birth into women’s working lives, setting limitations of women’s ability to access CEO roles and the availability of CEO appointments”. Examples of factors that are impeding women’s career advancement in the organizational context are their limited access to networks as well as the lack of sponsorship. Compared to their male peers

These structural career barriers and issues that women are facing include (but are not limited to):

  • Gender Wage Gap

Despite the increased efforts to reduce the differences and steady improvements toward the equality of wages between men and women, the gender wage gap is still far from closed. This means that women globally earn less than men for identical work in the same exact position.

  • Shadow Effects of Maternity Leave

In societies offering the right to paid maternity and paternity leave, it is due to the aforementioned gender wage gap absolutely understand why it is usually women and not their male partners who take this leave. In arithmetical terms, it simply makes more sense for the person in the household with a lower income to stay at home after the birth of a child (if there is even a choice).

Studies in various countries have further revealed that maternity leaves unintentionally hurt women’s career prospects. The chances of promotions, moving into management, and pay raises after their leave decrease, the longer mothers are away from work. In addition, the risk of demotion or being discharged increases.

  • The ‘Glass Ceiling’

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, it is a metaphor for “[a]n unacknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities”.

  • Sexist stereotypes and biases

In most societies, women are expected to take on the sole responsibility for child care and the household, regardless of whether they are employed or not. Moreover, women are expected to behave according to their traditional gender roles. This has an effect on how women as leaders are regarded. On the one hand, the acceptance rates of female leaders are increasing, and “stereotypes are less likely to be applied when sufficient individuating information is available”. On the other hand, women’s behaviors that are not matching their gender role are often frowned upon. Female leaders are for instance penalized when adopting a counter-stereotypic leadership style, such as being more assertive or direct. According to a survey conducted, their relationship ratings by employees are rated lower than those of male leaders who are direct. In reverse, when a male leader adopts a style that contrasts with the masculine gender role such as sensitive behavior, they are less likely to be penalized.

Criticism and Trade-Offs

Not only the behavior and performance of women leaders are more often than not put under a microscope. In addition, their choice of taking on a leadership position is being judged and criticized as they are (not completely) fulfilling their gender stereotypical roles as mothers and homemakers. In her critically acclaimed book, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg addresses the judgment that women in the workforce are subjected to, particularly when they become or aspire to become leaders. She states that “employed mothers and fathers both struggle with multiple responsibilities, but mothers also have to endure the rude questions and accusatory looks that remind us that we’re shortchanging both our jobs and our children. As if we needed reminding”. Moreover, Sandberg calls the widespread ideological concept of ‘having it all, successful professional life and a fulfilling and happy personal life, a myth at best as it covers the concept of trade-offs and compromises. The “work-life-narrative” of having to balance professional roles with maternal roles, contributed to more changes in organizational protocols and increased family-friendly policies. Nevertheless, the pressure on main women remains, not only externally, but also internally, as they are receiving harsh judgment by others – often by other women – but also by themselves. Sandberg identifies fear as the root of many obstacles that women encounter. Women are afraid not to be liked, to make the wrong decisions, to draw negative attention, to fail, to overreach, to be judged, and to be bad mothers, wife, and/or daughters.

Thus, women experience severe internal and external pressures and criticism relating to the performance of their traditional gender role, in addition to facing difficult trade-offs that any leader would encounter. A commonly expressed critique is the prioritization of their career over family. In order to prioritize their own development over others and withstand external judgment and pressures, self-acceptance is required. They further have to make difficult decisions such as what they want to become, what they would sacrifice, and which critique they are willing to face. “While the deprioritizing family has commonly been countercultural for women, so has to pursue a leadership journey. Such a journey is not only a matter of ambition but also of (self-) perceived ability”. Therefore, the process of self-acceptance entails the recognition and acceptance of one’s own leadership potential as well as the capacity to cope with internal and external expectations about the prioritization of career and family. Thus, it is key to overcoming confidence barriers.

As previously mentioned, women often find themselves challenged to find a balance between the demands from their professional and their personal lives, which are often incompatible with one another. While taking these work-life balance issues seriously, it is advised to frame them like other business decisions. This means that the trade-offs need to be recognized, a decision to be made, the entailed responsibilities to be accepted, and then to move on.

The dilemma between Ethnic vs. Professional Identity

For minorities, the additional dimension of ethnic identity needs to be considered when discussing the topic of self-acceptance and self-esteem. Research suggested that the resolution of issues surrounding the ethnic identity of minorities was related to their self-esteem. In the case of Hispanic women in the US for instance, preserving their Hispanic identity is of particular significance. They often view success for women in the professional sphere as directly related to ethnic origin. More specifically, while they attribute occupational success to women who belong to the majority culture, they ascribe the failure of women of color to their ethnicity.

They are thus facing the following dilemma: Either they adopt their traditional gender role or they detach from their ethnic identity. They are dealing with the challenging balancing act between maintaining their Hispanic cultural background and working in the professional sphere. While the latter stresses individual achievements outside of the home, the former traditionally emphasizes the family and the home. Hence, Professional Hispanic women are being marginalized in both spheres – in their ethnic as well as their professional social groups. This results in experiencing internal conflicts as they struggle with the development of their professional career while maintaining their ethnic identity and their familial values. A study has found that there might be a correlation between the lower self-acceptance rates of Hispanic professional women and the challenging balance of cultural expectations. And as they are facing this difficulty of balancing the culture of the majority middle-class on the one hand, and their ethnic culture on the other hand, the findings of the study have shown that this resulted in the development of compensatory ‘masculine’ behavior in order to achieve professional success.

Self-Doubt and the ‘Imposter Syndrome’

The ‘Impostor Syndrome’ is a widespread phenomenon of capable people severely suffering from doubting themselves. More specifically, this phenomenon is defined as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness and the inability to internalize professional success despite objective indicators noting otherwise”. The behaviors associated with the impostor phenomenon are usually maladaptive and perfectionistic, such as over-preparation, rumination as well as overestimation of mistakes.

Oftentimes, it is the high achievers, who tend to feel like fake and rigorously underestimate their abilities. Among them, particularly female professionals are affected by it. While both men and women are susceptible to it, this fear of being exposed as a fraud, having the feeling of not being as capable, and feeling unworthy of one’s success is more intensely experienced by women. And as they are more affected, they are effectively also more limited by it.

It is a sad reality that women often underestimate their qualifications, and intelligence, and view themselves as less deserving than men or other women. Women grow up receiving these messages from society and they internalize them, which makes them effectively believe this to be a true part of themselves. The often-cited study by Clance and Imes on successful female professionals showed that women often struggle to legitimize their success despite actually already being accomplished. Moreover, they tend to attribute their success to external reasons, such as having a mentor, colleagues, or simply having pure luck. Additionally, they are persistently afraid of being regarded as unworthy of their career status by others.

As studies have shown, women are less likely to push for a promotion or a raise than men, which consequently has a negative impact on their careers. Due to the imposter syndrome, females are also less likely to put themselves forward and to be therefore considered by others. Hence, aspiring female leaders may have to face two barriers: Firstly, others may not see their leadership potential when having less relevant experience, and secondly, they themselves struggle to realize it and underestimate themselves as well.

Recommendations for Aspiring Female Leaders

Self-Acceptance is key

In a recent study, 151 global CEOs were interviewed, among which 12 were female and 139 were male, to find out what enables women to take on a leadership position, more specifically, to become a CEO. The interviewed women CEOs are mostly leading large, global corporations and drew their own accounts from their success. The findings of this study demonstrated that self-acceptance is a key and fundamental step on the road of becoming a leader. It provided evidence that working on the “self” is critical for women to progress professionally and for attaining a leadership position. Early on in the careers of the interviewed women CEOs, they encountered contextual and personal barriers, which lead them to continue work on the self and reflexivity. They attributed the transformation of their own attitudes to accept their own leadership potential to be the key first step in the development of the mindsets and skills needed for them to later become CEOs.

Taking Active Ownership

The authors of the study identified that, at the individual level, “women can take active ownership of their careers as part of a self-acceptance process”. This is then followed by the processes of self-development and self-management. As a driving force for their future career paths, self-acceptance emerged at an early stage in their careers. As women grew more and more into senior roles and eventually into their current leadership roles, self-management and self-development have been more prevalent. Thus, taking active ownership has been identified by the interviewees as the key driving force for female leadership careers. Taking active ownership of their own careers can be a critical turning point of what female leaders can become and what not.

For that reason, young women are encouraged to seek stretch assignments for their development instead of waiting to feel completely ready for a job or a position. As men push for promotions faster and harder than women, young women are also advised to be bolder and think of themselves as leaders. For women, it is therefore a critical first step to developing confidence and accepting their potential for promotion. In the experience of the interviewed female CEOs, being under the pressure of building a career and taking on a leadership role it was essential for them to toughen up over time.

In the face of very real structural barriers and biases towards them, women and especially those aspiring to become leaders, are thus encouraged to realize their own agency and acknowledge their own responsibilities in dealing with the circumstances at hand. By accepting these cards they have been dealt with, including the circumstances and the internal as well as external critical voices, they are able to resourcefully seek ways in which they can influence their own career.

Accepting Leadership Potential

When asked, what further advice they would give to young aspiring female leaders, the interviewees added the dimension of needing greater self-confidence, resilience, as well as acceptance of their own leadership potential. Based on this, they can approach the development of their career with greater self-confidence. A different study has found that a strong indicator for predicting women’s leadership potential is the ability to identify and face difficulties openly and non-defensively. There is furthermore an overwhelmingly significant statistical correlation between self-confidence and leadership effectiveness. These findings generally indicate that effective leaders are associated with women having high self-esteem and self-confidence, while also leading in a communal style.

Interestingly, the interviewed female CEOs have described their self-acceptance and recognition of their own leadership potential and ambition as similar to a “coming out” moment. “Paradoxically, female CEOs have to accept, rather than celebrate their leadership potential”. Here, a definite gender-specific distinction is evident.

Recommendations for Organizations

As previously mentioned, the acceptance of oneself and one’s leadership potential is the crucial first step for becoming a leader. From an organizational perspective, Human Resources departments may provide support for women in this regard. The empowerment of talented women and supporting active ownership is a crucial role for HR departments. This could be in form of recognizing the existing talents of women and offering them on-the-job chances for expanding their leadership skills. Executive coaching and leadership development can be extremely empowering and have positive effects on boosting the leadership confidence of women. Therefore, it is advised for HR departments to actively employ such interventions.

Moreover, by shifting HR systems towards having a long-term focus, women would be offered more space and time for pursuing ambitious careers while simultaneously raising a family. The oscillation of stages of work and family is not only profitable for female leaders, but also for their organization. In order to achieve this, Human Resources needs to make sure that women are able to stay engaged in the professional and social life of the workplace, even if they are on leave or their workload is formally reduced. Examples of such interventions an organization and its HR department could implement are the following:

  1. Establishment of a time management system that is family-friendly (e.g. flex-time system)
  2. Encouragement of management skills utilization
  3. HR practices that promote equity, increase employee commitment, and retention

Moreover, offering female leaders incentives and resources for pursuing executive education training could also enhance their leadership skills.

01 August 2022

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