At the beginning of this year, I attended a fascinating panel discussion at the annual Division of Occupational Psychology conference titled ‘Women with Power’.  I’ve been reflecting on the outputs from this discussion at a professional and a personal level since. And here’s why…

Sitting in a large conference room at the University of Nottingham, it was positive to be part of a mixed audience, all present to hear the views of senior women who had ‘made it’ in their respective fields (manufacturing, the arts and law) and learn about their progression up the career ladder. After all, as psychology practitioners working to support organisations in the retention and growth of diverse talent pools, it is crucial that we marry the academic research with the real-life insights on offer from individuals who have experienced this journey to the top first hand.

The academic research provides clear evidence of the benefits a diverse workforce brings organisations, including: better decision-making, greater innovation and creativity, better corporate governance, less group-think, less insolvency, better talent management and market responsiveness (Catalyst, 2013). With now almost a quarter (23.5%) of all FTSE 100 board positions filled by women (The female FTSE Board Report 2015), it was therefore encouraging to be part of a debate on what more needs to be done to achieve greater gender equality.

Clearly, this is a positive start. However, recent research suggests that there is still a long way to go before the gender challenge is overcome. McKinsey (2015) recently revealed research stating that women are less likely to be promoted than men, hold fewer roles offering progression to top management positions, and: “are a century away from gender parity in the C-suite if progress continues at the pace that prevailed between 2012 and 2015” (McKinsey, 2015). Thirty-eight percent of women in technology feel that their gender will make it difficult for them to advance in the future. And a number of sectors – including automotive, energy and technology – are failing to attract women for entry-level positions, resulting in an underrepresented talent pipeline (McKinsey, 2016).  This current under-utilisation of educated, female talent is costing our economy billions (Sealy, 2010).

Indeed the title of the conference – Resilience in a Changing World – was quite apt in describing the experiences of many women looking to make such journeys into male-dominated industries or towards senior leadership positions. The gender landscape is changing and we are making progress towards tackling inequality, but there’s still a need for significant mental toughness to overcome many of the roadblocks encountered on the way to the top.

So what more can be done to support women in achieving their career ambitions?

More than luck…

The senior women taking part in the panel discussion were great examples of the strong and resilient females fighting their way to the top of organisations in a still unbalanced working world. Their stories were inspirational. There were battle scars, but ultimately each was now leading an organisation they felt connected with, within an industry they were passionate about.

Yet during these discussions, I became aware of one word that almost all of these highly successful women used when describing their personal experiences: luck. Whether that was describing a lucky break, or the fact that they were lucky to have a supportive husband with less ambitious career goals, a degree of good fortune played a part in almost every success story.

This observation struck a rather personal chord. As a young and ambitious woman in the workplace, I too have been guilty on occasions of underplaying my own ability. This lack of self-belief can be damaging.

Low self-confidence can have little to do with capability. Studies have shown that women are more likely to have MBA degrees and international experience over their male counterparts (Singh, Terjesen & Vinnicombe, 2008). In addition, women directors are significantly more likely to have an advanced degree. It is proposed that this drive for higher education could be in response to a perceived need for greater evidence of ability and justification of positional power (Terjesen, Sealy & Singh, 2009).

A lack of self-belief among capable women could be signs of the psychological phenomenon ‘imposter syndrome’. Imposter syndrome refers to instances when high-achieving individuals are unable to internalise their personal success for fear of being exposed as a fraud. Success is often attributed to being in the ‘right place at the right time’. Both men and women are affected; however there is evidence to suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women (Clance et. al, 1995).

Fighting fraudulent feelings

As forward-thinking organisations take action to eliminate unconscious bias, for example through introducing company-wide D&I training and more inclusive recruitment and selections practices, the barriers to an even playing field over time will hopefully continue to diminish. But what else can be done to develop and sustain self-belief in the workplace?

Research has shown that exposure to another successful woman in the workplace can make women rate themselves more positively, thus increasing self-confidence and belief in personal capability (Lockwood, 2006). Yet the lack of senior female role models continues to be reported as a key barrier to women’s career success (Sealy, R & Singh, 2009). An additional step to building belief among the female workforce could therefore be an increase in opportunities for women to connect with and learn from their female colleagues.

This goes beyond female networks and events. While important in bringing like-minded women together and effective at showcasing success stories and creating solidarity, research on social identify theory (Tajfel, 1982) would caution that such group categorisation could also foster stereotypical perceptions.

In addition to these groups, there also needs to be a mind-set shift. For example, rather than identifying as “the only woman on the leadership team”, successful female role models must be seen as “one member of a team of highly-skilled professionals”. This gives other women guidance on the broad attitudes and behaviours needed to ‘make it’. While the broader re-positioning offers opportunities for all to be positively influenced by the behaviours of female role models, including men.

More must be done to embed a culture of equality within organisations. Along with the introduction of new policies and processes, businesses must look to challenge the perceptions and attitudes of their people. This includes building belief and self-confidence, and supporting the development of a more inclusive mind-set. Encouraging visible female role models that both women and men can look up to is just one possible way of achieving this.



Catalyst. (2013). Why Diversity Matters. Retrieved 22nd March, 2016, from: http://www.catalyst.org/system/files/why_diversity_matters_catalyst_0.pdf

Clance, P.R.; Imes, S.A. (1978). “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 15 (3), 241 – 247.

Clance, P.R., Imes, S.A. (1978). “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15 (3), 241–247.

Clance, P.R., Dingman, D., Reviere, S.L. & Stober, D.R. (1995). Impostor phenomenon in an interpersonal / social context: Origins and treatment. Women and Therapy, 16, 79 – 96.

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McKinsey. (2015). Women In The Workplace. Retrieved 22nd march, 2016, from: http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/women-in-the-workplace

McKinsey. (2016). Breaking Down The Gender Challenge. Retrieved 22nd March, 2016, from: http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/breaking-down-the-gender-challenge?cid=mckwomen-eml-alt-mkq-mck-oth-1603

Sealy, R. (2012). The Road to Representation – CFO World. Retrieved 22nd February, 2016, from: http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/4895/1/Road%20to%20preseantation%20RS_CFO%20article%202012.pdf

Sealy, R. &Singh, V. (2009). The importance of role models and demographic context for senior women’s work identity development. International Journal of Management Reviews, 12(3), 284 – 300,

Singh, V., Terjesen, S. and Vinnicombe, S. (2008) Newly appointed directors in the boardroom: How do women and men differ? European Management Journal, 26(1), 48 – 58.

Tajfel,H. (1982). Social identity and intergroup relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Terjesen, S. Sealy, R. & Singh, V. (2009). Woman Directors on Corporate Boards: A Review and Research Agenda. Corporate Governance: An International Review, 17 (3), 320 – 337.  

Vinnicombe, S., Doldor, E., Sealy, r., pryce, P & turner, C. (2015). The Female FTSE Board Report 2015. Putting the UK Progress into a Global Perspective. Retrieved 22nd February, 2016, from: http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/research/ftse/FemaleFTSEReportMarch2015.pdf

About the Author:

Jayne Ruff Business Psychologist and Partner at ChangingPoint. For more information on ChangingPoint, please contact jayne@changing-point.com