There’s been an interesting side effect to society’s changing perspective regarding women and leadership; many women are finding the need to reevaluate their perspectives on their own leadership call. Some are being forced to ask themselves the question:

Who am I when the Lid is lifted?

Like you, I’m fortunate to know a very large number of gifted and talented women. They’re strong, courageous, encouraging, visionary, and they’re all out for female empowerment. Some were brought up in the previous generation and the curtailing of women’s right to lead heavily impacted their lives.

It’s true that ‘the Lid’ operated as a force to be reckoned with, and many women experienced up close and personal the rigid refusal of the establishment to allow them to operate to their full potential. However, in the last decade this barrier has shifted. Women are stepping up to the platform and the boardroom in increasing numbers and the growing validation of gender equality empowers not only new generations of gifted women leaders, but the older generations also. Turns out, they haven’t missed the boat after all.

However, newfound freedoms have forced a re-examination of old dreams and a reevaluation of what-might-have-beens. Those who are now free to reach for those stars have realised that the Lid was not their only limiting factor. On being released to go for it, some now feel that success will cost more than they’re willing to pay. Others have concluded that the effort required to live the dream is beyond them, either because of the energy expenditure, or time has shown they really weren’t as gifted for leadership as it appeared when the ‘no girls allowed’ policies operated as a reason why they were not being recognised. Many have found that when it comes down to the wire, their limitations are far more entrenched within themselves than they realised.

It is safe to gripe about unfairness when the system appears impenetrable. It’s convenient to blame your woes on an unfair regime, but when the restrictions are off, you have to put up or shut up. When you believe the leadership roles you imagine for yourself can never materialise, you’re also safe in the knowledge you’ll never be called upon to live in the courageous, time-consuming, energy-draining, problem-solving reality of what living the dream of leading in your chosen field might actually look like.

Eleanor Roosevelt said: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

The problem is that we do consent.

We cheer at the accomplishments of other women, rejoicing when they defy the odds and break through the glass ceilings, but when it comes stepping up to the challenge of senior leadership ourselves, many women revert to self-effacing, apologetic behaviour, losing confidence in the abilities they worked so hard to gain.

An international leader whom I respect very highly had realised, while working with a world-renowned children’s charity, that all the board members were men. The response to her querying this state of affairs was shocking. It appears that every woman who had been approached to take a place on that board had refused on the grounds they were not qualified. Around the same time, I attended a meeting in London hosted by Women in Public Policy. The point of the evening was to highlight the dearth of women on boards and to encourage them to apply for seats on whatever boards they were suitable for.

The panel stated, as my friend had told me previously, that no matter how educated and experienced, most women tend toward disqualifying themselves from senior posts due to lack of confidence in their own abilities. Statistically, when viewing a job for which they are only 50 to 60% qualified, most men will apply anyway, whereas women tend to feel they must be able to meet 95-100% of the job’s criteria before they will even consider applying.

My friend immediately applied for a position on that board and maintained the role for some years, but at the meeting I attended, question time was full of professionals such as solicitors, engineers and business leaders who espoused exactly those concerns. More than half the women in the room personally spoke of avoiding, not applying for, or refusing roles on boards because of fear, feelings of inadequacy, and lack of confidence.

Fear has been built into the psyche of the female half of our society. I’m constantly amazed at the number of strong, effective, innovative women who are clearly leaders, who baulk at opportunities because they feel unable, unworthy, victims of the imposter syndrome.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we cheer our friends on yet fall foul to our fears when it comes to stepping up to the plate ourselves? The answers are not to be found in external situations, but in our hearts and the perspectives we have of ourselves. Until we can rise to the call of God on our lives as leaders, and as women of courage and wisdom, we will always be decrying the glass ceiling. But in many places, that ceiling has been dismantled and it is we who are lacking the wherewithal to rise and take our places.

The breakthrough begins inside us and works its way out from there. Once we are free on the inside, we are free in every arena.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you know women who are much more gifted and capable than their role or culture acknowledges? Women who are doing far more and better work than they give themselves credit for? Give an example.
  2. Having read this post, can you highlight areas in which you find yourself hesitating to put yourself forward for something you ‘know’ you could do, but are beset by fear of failure?
  3. Do you cheer your friends on to greater heights, but hold back when it comes to your own potential and possibilities?
  4. Are you willing to change in this area?

Remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.