Skip to main content

Do women fear leadership?Why is it that women are still under-represented at senior levels in organisations?  Is it because women fear leadership and the responsibility?

Recently I was coaching a female General Manager, who has the ambition to continue to grow in her career.  As we discussed her situation, it was clear to me that she had arranged her life so that she could take on the challenges of her demanding role.  She had got to where she was in her career because she was willing to work long hours to fix urgent problems.  She did this around the needs of her family, where she and husband shared responsibilities.

Hard work, capability and commitment were not going to hold her back.

I think she is fairly typical of many of the female managers I work with, so will use her situation as an example. Let’s call her Sue.

Female leadership capabilities

Sue is definitely qualified to do the job she is doing.  She has a history in the industry she works in and is skilled in both the technical and the leadership capabilities of the role.  Yet, when we did the discovery (get to know you) session, she expressed a fear that she is a ‘fraud’.  Why? because she hadn’t gone to university and got an appropriate degree.  What she had done, was start at the bottom in her industry and learnt on the job, attending various specific training programmes and gaining qualifications relevant to her role as she progressed.

Those appointing her to her current role clearly believed that she could do it and now they had invested further in her to develop her to a more senior leadership role.  Why did she think that her credentials were not good enough?

Research shows a different attitude

Is this a peculiarly female trait?  Recruitment companies have researched who applies for what jobs and found that typically a woman will only apply for a job if she already fulfils at least 90% of what they are looking for; whereas a man will apply even if he only fulfils 10% of the criteria.  Is it that men have more bravado or is their self-belief significantly greater than women’s?

Limiting beliefs

I have coached men who worry about ‘being found out’ as an imposter and this fear is fairly widely found among CEO’s and top leaders.  However, I have generally found that men are able to channel this fear in a healthy way to ensure they stay on their toes and put in the effort needed to reach quality decisions.  Whereas for women, this fear can cause them to freeze and hold back.  When women fear leadership, their coaching need is to address this limiting belief and change their perception. So they understand the value of their skills and experience and can see that they are the right person for the job.

Sue and I worked on her limiting beliefs and I helped her to see the value that she was bringing to her role.  When I met with her recently it was such a pleasure to hear her talk about her skills and capabilities in a confident way, she now knows her value and is ready to take on more.  One piece of evidence of how much she has transformed her personal situation really struck home. Sue commented, “When we started working together I was not sleeping well, I would wake up in the middle of the night and have to write stuff down that was in my head because I was worrying about work, this was happening 2-3 times a week! Now it is happening maybe once a month and I’m feeling a whole lot more productive.”

Are women their own worst enemies, when it comes to reaching senior leadership? Do women fear leadership, but they could channel this emotion into positive energy? Or does the conditioning of decision-makers override women’s capability and potential?  This is a HUGE question as there are many factors that influence whether women are appointed to top positions.

Unconscious bias

Many argue that centuries of male leadership has created biased expectations of effective leadership and that those making the decisions are biased (probably unconsciously) so do not select women.

I was interested in some research into STEM job offers, which discovered that a female applicant was perceived as less competent and was less likely to be offered a job. Plus if she was offered a job it was offered at about 13% lower salary than a man.  This is particularly interesting as scientists and engineers are trained to evaluate the facts and the two resumes were identical except for the name at the top – John or Jennifer.

The researchers thought that this bias was unconscious.  After participating in training on gender diversity, a survey of the scientists and engineers showed significantly reduced gender bias. So the good news is that we can change the conditioning.

Be proactive, raise your awareness and take responsibility for fair play

If we are all simply responding to our conditioning, what will you do to raise your own awareness of bias? Maybe you are a woman, who thinks she is not good enough, when you are! Or maybe you are a man, who unconsciously judges women and other minorities as inferior, when the evidence says they are not. What will you do change your thinking and help create an even playing field for all?

I would be interested to hear about your own experience in this, do you think women fear leadership? please post your comments and questions below.  If you want to discuss this topic or anything around leadership development, please contact Amanda.


Amanda has over 20 years’ experience in people development and has been specialising in leadership over the last 10 years.  If you are working on your leadership signature, please sign up for “The 4 keys to being an effective leader”. This free guide will help you to think through who you are as a leader and how you can be the example you want to see in the world.


  • Very interesting post Amanda – I can relate It is easier to focus on what we can’t do… guess it all stems from the fear of not being good enough.
    Found this very encouraging!

  • The ‘imposter’ is a common feeling among women isn’t it. An interesting point you make about formal qualifications. I have worked with many ‘male’ CEOs and senior leaders without qualifications and they have been some of the best. Yet, in line with your point, I feel better if I have a qualification. Why is this, it’s almost like we need to validate our ability as women. I’m going to turn this on its head, you’ve got me thinking. Very thought provoking post Amanda.

  • Catherine O says:

    I so agree with this concept of unconscious bias. I think we limit ourselves as much as other people limit us. And I totally relate to that feeling of being a fraud. I struggled to get a job in engineering when I left university, and had to badger my way into my first job. It was really hard knowing my managers had had such serious doubts about me, and I had to watch my male peers take one promotion or pay rise after another, while I got by on my graduate wage. Some of them are VPs and C-levels now. I know it wasn’t as simple as them being sexist or me not delivering, but a rather complex mix of both. I gave up on engineering but still work in the IT field, which is a nice compromise for me. I also know women who stayed and are doing well for themselves who don’t believe they’ve ever encountered sexism. So it’s fair to say “it’s complicated”. Good to know there are solutions though.

  • Excellent post. This is something that really interests me. It also immediately made me think of another woman I know who is a fantastic manager and also did not go to university. It really doesn’t matter. She works terrifically hard, has great ideas which she follows up and a lot of courage. She is a real inspiration.

    In my own life I had a first marriage to someone who expected me to negate my ambitions for his and eventually I realised not only did I feel unfulfilled by just doing his bidding but I actually couldn’t face spending the rest of my life being his unofficial PA and never taking my own decisions even if they were bad ones!. The last couple of years I have been getting back to work and loving it. One strange thing is that I am now working as a choir director and organist. Pretty far from being the housewife I was made into (big smiley face). This happened because I loved church music and trained (as an adult and “allowed to” because it was seen as a little hobby) to play the organ, sing and conduct. I always knew I wanted it to be more than a hobby and that I wanted to teach it to others. What I hadn’t quite foreseen was that this would mean I would be propelled into a leadership role. At first I found it terrifying. My coping method was to remember I needed to do it for the money and to achieve my ambitions and, more importantly, to focus on the music. To my amazement I found it seemed to come naturally, even though I saw myself as introverted and rather cowardly. When fixed on the music and getting the ensemble right I seem to have no fear, just a strong desire to get the job done as well as I can. I am realising that leadership actually suits me – or at least there is a part of me that is fulfilled by it and can cope – and that it makes me feel…great.

    I am all for women taking on leadership. I think they do it really well and it is better for everyone if we take on more responsibility in the world. In my other role as an artist I am painting 50 faces and actively looking for women who are good role models of leadership. I am looking for men too but particularly for strong women who have achieved things by their own efforts rather than ones famous for just their looks or for who they are married to. There are some examples on my website and I am open for suggestions of who else to include.

  • Amanda Bouch says:

    Thank you Sarah, this is a powerful story and beautifully encapsulates what women can do.
    I too took on a role that pushed me into leadership and I focused on what I wanted everyone to experience and how I and the team could make that happen. It worked brilliantly – better than I expected and has created a strong organisation that lives my vision. Sounds very similar to your situation. Love it!

  • Amanda Bouch says:

    Hi Catherine, Thanks for your comment. Even though I worked in marketing, I also experienced the same effect. The men were generally promoted ahead of me and it was a complex picture. However in marketing it was typical to move on after a couple of years, if your company didn’t get in there first and promote you, you sought the promotion through a job move. That muddies the waters even more and makes it very difficult to see cause and effect.

  • Amanda Bouch says:

    Hi Nicky, In researching my latest blog I came across the comment that 80% of the working population feel like imposters. Olivia Fox Cabane commented that when she asks the new students at Harvard, “who here is thinking that you are the one that shouldn’t be here, that somehow you got through the net?” about 2/3 of the students put their hands up. So that confident exterior we see in many people is only the exterior, on the inside they may feel unsure too.

  • Amanda Bouch says:

    Thanks Susan, I too am finding this encouraging as writing about it is making me address my self-limiting beliefs and take action.

  • Mary Fraser says:

    Really enjoyed your article Amanda and I was particularly interested to read about the power and realisation of ‘self limiting beliefs’. Although there continues to be a big salary gap / issue between the sexes, I am encouraged by the growth and development of female leadership in organisations. Much yet to accomplish I know. There have been occasions for me where I’ve had to ‘step up and step out of my comfort zone’ to lead teams … feelings of self doubt …vulnerability occasionally …risky …however great experience and learning! Also delighted to learn about how much more I had to offer as a leader and what untapped skills I had to share too!

  • Amanda Bouch says:

    Thanks Mary, I agree about more to do. I have a hypothesis that women know they are not paid as well as men, and accept it because it feels like there is less pressure on them to deliver results. High pay = high expectation and they don’t really want that… What do you think?

Leave a Reply