Three Impressions that Keep Women from Advancing

This is the 1st post in our Women of HR series focusing on career. Read along, consider the advice and we invite you to comment with insights of your own.

By 2016, women are projected to receive more than 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 61 percent of master’s degrees and over 53 percent of all doctorate and professional degrees.

The U.S. Department of Education says that women have been earning more degrees than men for more than 28 years.

And yet, the studies prove that women still aren’t moving up the corporate structure very quickly. Last year, Catalyst updated their statistics regarding women who sit on Fortune 500 Boards and found that the percentage (approximately 16 percent) is simply not changing.

While I don’t profess to have the answer to these challenges, I am fascinated by the profiles of women who reach the top. Few would say they got there on sheer luck, many would say they needed some help with settling into the environment, and most would say they were mentored and coached along the way. All of the women that I have worked with would say that feedback on personal style and communication would have been helpful sooner, rather than later.

Here are three of the most common impressions that may be preventing women from going to the next level, and suggested feedback for coaching women to overcome them.

Impression #1: I Can Do Everything.

Managers are often unsure of what to do with someone who insists on taking on every task. And, in fact, it doesn’t take long before this good intention can turn into the impression of someone who can’t delegate or who doesn’t manage others well. Women who try to do everything can get left behind doing all of the little things, rather than running the big initiatives.

Coaching Note: Women need to hone their skills and excel at something specific, not everything. It’s hard to quantify the impact you’ve had on a department or project if you’ve done a little of everything. Instead, if you’ve focused on one project and managed it from start to finish, it’s easier to align yourself with success.

Impression #2: Let’s Discuss!

Talking is as necessary as breathing for many women, and as exhausting as a marathon to many men. Women frequently approach business situations with a desire to talk it through and debate all of the ideas and options, which can translate to, “She talks too much.” Women who get bogged down in the details by their desire to talk things out can alienate male counterparts.

Coaching Note: The ability to talk things out is a trait that women actually use to their advantage when they are in roles to facilitate or lead discussions. But, it’s important to learn how to read an audience by listening first. Women should listen first and speak last but it isn’t always necessary to be heard on every topic. Your presence and non-verbal reactions often say more than your words.

Impression #3: I’m Tough as Nails.

Often, women feel as though they have to be aggressive with their communication in the workplace in order to get ahead and be heard. Men rarely challenge ideas in meetings; they tend to take debates out into the hall. When companies want fighters, they promote the football all-star or the Navy Seal. Companies need women to bring intuitive skills and warmth to a team.

Coaching Note: Aggressiveness is not a trait that most people like and it’s important for women to understand when they are fighting or pushing others away with their communication style. In many cases, I find that women don’t realize they’re being viewed this way.  By becoming more aware of these types of impressions, women gain credibility by simply being who they are and projecting a sense of confidence about what they can achieve – all before saying a word.

Management consultants have said for years that women have natural nurturing traits that make them effective as communicators and team leaders. But, the statistics above make it clear; it’s still a challenge for women to get leadership roles. Becoming aware of how good intentions can lead to wrong impressions will help women make different choices in how they communicate, and ultimately improve their performance.

Photo credit iStockPhoto

About the author: President and founder of Sally Williamson & Associates (SW&A), Sally Williamson specializes in executive coaching and developing custom workshops. Her book, The Hidden Factor: Executive Presence, is a leading resource on developing Executive Presence.

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I think we’re missing something here. The advice is good and all that but there is another perspective I’d like to bring in. I’m a woman who’s in the workplace right now and I am management level so I think I can speak without being accused of bias. How many women honestly want to make board or executive level? The price to pay at that level, on a woman’s personal commitments, are often much higher than many women want to pay. A recent study in the UK (forgive me, I can’t remember the details but I read it about 2 weeks ago) showed that a larger percentage of women would rather stay at home or work from home than in corporate organisations. Take a rough survey of women you know, especially those who have younger families are intend to start one soon. I believe you’ll find that, barring situations where the woman has to provide for the family, many of us would rather stay back and mind our domestic affairs, working flexible jobs or running our small businesses. It would be difficult to climb the corporate ladder and still achieve this. I don’t think this is sexism either, women are just more suited to mind the homefront.

Debbie Brown

Sound advice to women rising in the ranks- and whether readers agree or disagree- anyone accepting the advice will do better at the table honing these skills if corporate executive is a goal.

Andrea Ballard

I absolutely agree it isn’t always necessary to be heard on every topic. I’ve had trouble with many women executives when it comes to the “Let’s Discuss” issue, but in a different way. Too many women are listening first and then skipping the speaking part all together, because they don’t want to repeat something that’s already been said. And then I hear from their male co-workers that they are ‘too quiet’ or ‘I’m not sure where she stands on the issues.’

Sometimes it’s better to be first out of the gate and get your opinion heard, especially if it’s an issue that’s been discussed before and you know where you stand.

Thanks for the interesting post, Sally!


I agree with Chris – the advice in this article is accurate – women need to be themselves. But, the article is missing the bigger picture – that sexism is alive and well. Women have been asked to change “this and that” about themselves in order to get promoted. And yet it is often a catch-22. For example – be more assertive and less emotional about business decisions. When that is done, the woman gets feedback that they are too aggressive and come across as the b-word. And they receive this feedback for doing something that nobody would think twice about if it was a man. Women bring different attributes to the workforce then men. Instead of asking women to fit into the male’s mold, we should find ways to accentuate those strengths. Instead of asking women to be more like a man, more needs to be done to encourage diversity at the executive ranks and increase acceptance of those differences.

Chris aka new_resource

I do not disagree with this advice, however I wonder if the problem is bigger! Like institutionalized or systematic sexism. I believe it exists. I recently read women make up 48% of the workforce yet only like 15% of the executives in the country are female. I call foul on that!

Rock on ladies, rock on.


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