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The 7 Damaging Power Gaps That Impact 98% Of Professional Women

Part of Kathy Caprino's series "The Most Powerful You"

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In the past 15 years of coaching and training professional women around the globe, I’ve seen firsthand that thousands of women have spent years building careers they thought would make them happy, only to wake up and realize they are very far from where they want to be, without a deep understanding of what’s really in the way.

Thousands are expending great amounts of energy trying to “hack it out” and working so hard trying to feel and be successful. But internally they’re hiding the fact that they’re scared, sad and demoralized, shuffling through each day trying in vain to build a better, happier professional life. Many have achieved a great deal of outer success, but internally they’re still not thriving in their work or work cultures. And they feel they’re not where they should or could be in terms of impact, responsibility, leadership, reward, or compensation.

Several years ago, I began to be truly amazed that the hundreds upon hundreds of women around the world who reached out for help — regardless of their socioeconomic level, education, compensation, the country they lived in, the fields they worked in and levels achieved — were sharing the same exact types of crushing career challenges over and over again. I decided to pull the viewfinder back and find the answer to these two key questions:

  1. What is it that all of these women are missing in their lives and work, that contribute to these struggles?
  2. What are they receiving or experiencing in our career coaching work that is helping them overcome these challenges and thrive at a higher level?

The answer was this: What was missing was bravery and power. They were lacking in experiencing the level of bravery required to face and address head-on what wasn’t working in their lives and work and take full accountability for changing what needed to shift. And they were lacking the internal and external power necessary to become a true change agent in their own lives. This led me to want to learn more about the most pressing challenges women face today in their work and how to overcome them.

Based on my recent Power Gap Survey, the findings revealed that a staggering 98% of professional women are facing what I’ve seen are the 7 most damaging power gaps that keep them from thriving and reaching their highest potential, and over 75% are facing three or more at the same time.

As a former corporate executive (who struggled inwardly during much of my career), then marriage and family therapist and now in my career coaching and consulting work, I’ve seen that most professional challenges are related in some core way to a lack of internal or external bravery and power that generates steady “leaks” in our confidence, vision, and authority. These leaks affect our ability to make headway towards building a more authoritative and rewarding professional life with the impact and fulfillment we long for. These power gaps hit women hard today for numerous reasons involving societal and cultural factors, the impact of working and living in patriarchal systems, how we’re raised and culturally trained, and what happens to us once we enter the working world. And women experience and process these challenges differently from men. 

I refer to these challenges as “power gaps” because I see them as just that – gaps in our power that steal from us what we need most to succeed: energy, confidence, clarity, commitment, connection, and influence. The longer the gap remains unaddressed, the wider it comes, and the more damage it does to our internal sense of confidence and control.

The seven most damaging power gaps I’ve experienced in my own life and observed in thousands of professional women around the world are:

Power Gap 1: Not Recognizing Your Special Talents, Abilities and Accomplishments (63% of the women studied are experiencing this gap)

What women with this gap often share: “I have no idea how or if I’m special, unique, or talented. I don’t think I have any special abilities.”

In reviewing thousands of responses to my Career Path Self-Assessment survey, I see the number of professional women who simply can’t answer this question: “What are my special talents and abilities, and how do I stand apart from others in my field?” The vast majority of the professional women who come to a coaching or training program with me leave this question blank and tell me that they have no idea how to answer it.

If you can’t recognize or name your special abilities and talents, then you can’t leverage them fully or effectively monetize them. And you won’t thrive in your work.

Power Gap 2: Communicating From Fear Not Strength (70% of the women studied are experiencing this gap)

What women with this gap often share: “I can’t speak up confidently or with authority.”

Women often struggle with how to communicate their accomplishments and abilities in a clear, confident way. They fear they’ll sound like they’re “bragging” or that they’re trying to grab too much of the credit for the great outcomes they produced or supported. And they fear that if they talk about their accomplishments in any public way (such as on LinkedIn), people will try to tear or knock them down. Our society does indeed have a clear gender bias when it comes to how we view forceful, assertive women, but we need to address that through more bravery and power, not weakness.

If you shy away from speaking compellingly about what you’ve done and achieved, you’ll lose critical chances to claim new opportunities that will grow your influence and impact. And I guarantee you that many of your competitors are not shying away from speaking up powerfully about what they’ve accomplished.

Power Gap 3: Reluctance to Ask For What You Deserve (77% of the women studied are facing this gap)

What women with this gap often share: “I’m not sure I deserve more and even if I do, I don’t know how to ask for what I want.”

The majority of women I work with are stymied as to how to ask for a raise or promotion, or even how to determine the very first step to figuring out what they should be asking for. One research study showed that 57% of men negotiate the first very salary out of MBA school, whereas only 7% of women do so. This reluctance of women to ask for what they want and deserve creates an inequity from the very first step in our careers. Without knowing how to ask for what you want and deserve, or building a strong case for it, you’ll very quickly fall behind your competitors and colleagues, and have to work years more than they do to ever catch up. And you’ll lose out on many thrilling opportunities for growth and contribution.

Power Gap 4: Isolating From Influential Support (71% of the women studied are facing this gap)

What women with this gap often share: “I hate networking and I’m reluctant to connect with people I don’t know who might be able to help me.”

These past few years, as I’ve increased my focus on how introversion versus extroversion is viewed in our workplaces, I’ve started to track the number of introverts who are asking to join a career coaching program or course with me. This year alone, over 70% of my clients and course members have self-reported as “introverted” and shared their belief that their introversion is perceived negatively by their bosses and colleagues. They also feel that their introversion has gotten in the way of their networking and expanding their sphere of influence and connection.

Many professionals — both introverted and extroverted alike — can’t stand to network and feel it’s fake and uncomfortable. I realized (after leaving my own corporate life and my final VP role that was such a bad fit for me) that the reason I hated networking during that final period was that I didn’t like the actual work I was doing or who I was in the role. It’s hard to network powerfully when you hate what you do.

But without building a powerful support community that can help you grow, and without “networking up” to connect with influential supporters who can open doors for you that you cannot on your own, and without expanding your network of great, inspiring colleagues past and current, you’ll severely limit your access to exciting new opportunities and roles. So you need to find at least one aspect of your work that you can feel excited to talk about, and leverage that fully.

Power Gap 5:  Acquiescing Instead of Saying “STOP!” (48% of the women studied are experiencing this gap)

What women with this gap often share: “I’m afraid to challenge the mistreatment I’m facing and all the unfair behavior around me towards other women.”

I regularly speak to large groups of women and when I ask attendees to raise their hands if they’ve ever experienced or witnessed behavior that they feel is unfair, unethical or worse, virtually all respondents’ hands shoot up in affirmation, every time. Most of us who’ve ever worked in an organization for any amount of time have personally witnessed behavior that made us deeply uncomfortable or afraid, and we went home that night struggling with how best to handle it. A recent study revealed that 81% of women and 43% of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetimes. And four in ten women have reported some form of gender discrimination at work.

The truth is this: If you stay silent in the face of unfair, unethical or illegal behavior — to you or to others around you — you’re contributing to its prevalence and continuation. And most likely, if you’re a woman, you’ll be on the receiving end of it at some point and it won’t end well. We need to access new ways to say “STOP!” to mistreatment that we’re experiencing and seeing around us.

Power Gap 6: Losing Sight of Your Thrilling Dream (76% of the women studied are facing this gap)

What women with this gap often share: “I have no idea what I want to do for a career or how I would even get there. I’m just not meant to have an amazing career.”

Many professional women I hear from and work with know what they don’t want in their jobs and careers but can’t identify what they do want. But they know this: The work they’re doing is very far away from the dream they once had for their lives and careers. If you have lost sight of your dream for your career but don’t know what to do about it, that’s a challenge that will keep you trapped in a miserable situation. If you can’t name what you long for, or if you’ve lost sight of a vision that used to excite you, you need to muster more bravery and power to make the necessary shifts and changes to leave this bad situation behind. And start doing this by taking tiny, baby steps toward exploring new directions in a risk-free way.

Power Gap 7:  Allowing Past Trauma To Define You (62% of the women studied are experiencing this gap)

What women with this gap often share: “I’m devastated by what’s happened to me and I can’t seem to put it behind me or get over it.”

This final power gap is incredibly potent and keeps so many women from moving forward to a happier life and career. They’re deeply impacted by what’s happened to them in the past and simply can’t move beyond it.

This includes dealing with a toxic or narcissistic manager who’s crushed their self-esteem, or being fired or laid off in a way that makes them question everything they’ve ever been or done. It also includes failing at a project or endeavor that leaves them feeling ashamed, insecure, and “less than.” And there are other life situations and events that women experience and harbor inside as “dirty little secrets” that they feel they need to hide in order to be accepted and viewed as valuable or worthy in the eyes of others.

In reality, there’s no way to escape pain in our work-lives — at some point, we’ll all feel it. The question isn’t “How do I avoid failure?” because we can’t. The key question that will move you forward beyond feeling like a failure is this: “How can I use all that I’ve learned and grow stronger, braver, and more powerful through all the challenges I’ve experienced?

When you muster more bravery and power in your professional and personal life today, you can finally take the reins, control what you can control, and build a happier, more thrilling and rewarding life and career. And then, and nothing can stop you.

Ready to close your power gaps?

The strongest gap-closing step you can take is to review the 7 gaps above, take my Power Gap Survey and if any resonate with you, act now. Choose the one gap that generates the most internal challenge, pain or shame and starting today, take small, doable microsteps to help you feel braver and more confident and impactful today.

For hands-on help to close these power gaps for good and build a happier, more rewarding career, read Kathy Caprino’s new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths To Career Bliss.

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