In the past 13 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 clue as to what’s in the way.
Thousands are expending great amounts of energy 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 some degree of success, but they’re still not thriving in their work or in their roles. And they feel they’re not where they should or could be in terms of impact, responsibility, leadership, or compensation.
My research has revealed that, while there are irrefutably numbers of critical institutional, organizational, cultural and societal barriers to ultimate success for women today, most professional challenges, are related in some core way to a lack of internal or external power that causes steady “leaks” in confidence, vision, and authority. These leaks affect women’s ability to make the headway necessary towards building a more authoritative and rewarding professional life with the impact and fulfillment they long for. I’ve made it my life’s work to help women close those power gaps, for good. I’ve found that while men also experience these specific gaps, they hit women harder and have more long-lasting negative effects for women. And women process these gaps very differently.
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 witnessed in thousands of women I’ve worked and connected with around the world are:
Power Gap #1: Not Recognizing Your Special Talents, Abilities and Accomplishments
What you tell yourself: “I’m not special or talented in any way.”
A corollary to this gap: The impostor syndrome: “I feel like an impostor for what I don’t know and how I don’t fit in here. I’m afraid I’ll be found out and fired.”
In reviewing thousands of responses to my Career Path Self-Assessment survey, I’ve seen the number of 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?” Literally over 90% of the professional and executive 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 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.
Further, the “impostor syndrome” that so many women live with today is a corollary to this gap. When we believe deep down that we’ll be “found out” (ridiculed, punished, rejected or fired, for example) for what we DON’T know, or when we feel we’re never good enough, then we live in fear. And that fear prevents us from being able to leverage what we DO know, and what we’re passionate about and believe in.
Power Gap #2: Communicating From Fear Not Strength
What you tell yourself: “I can’t speak up confidently or with authority.”
A corollary to this gap: “It feels wrong to take the credit, even when I deserve it.”
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. 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 power, not weakness.
I’ve seen that so many women were raised by parents (sometimes well-meaning and sometimes not) who taught them not to be too “showy,” not to appear too confident or to try to stand out. I had this in my own upbringing – the message that it was unseemly for me to think too highly of myself. Sadly, this is so very damaging to women’s psyches, and this message is the opposite of what many men are taught in their childhoods.
If you shy away from speaking compellingly about what you’ve done and achieved, you’ll lose critical chances to claim new roles, projects and opportunities that will grow your influence and impact. And I guarantee you that many of your male colleagues and competitors are not shying away from speaking up powerfully about what they’ve accomplished.
Power Gap #3: Reluctance to Ask For What You Deserve
What you tell yourself: “I feel I deserve a raise and promotion, but I’m afraid to ask and don’t know how.”
A corollary to this gap: “Do I truly deserve more? I’m not sure.”
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. And no matter how much they’ve accomplished, many are not sure they deserve to be rewarded and recognized through higher compensation and promotion.
Research has shown that 57% of men negotiate the first very salary out of school, whereas only 7% of women do so, which creates an inequity from the very first step in our careers. Without believing in your worth, knowing how to ask for what you 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.
Power Gap #4: Isolating From Influential Support
What you tell yourself: “I hate networking and connecting with strangers. It’s so awkward and uncomfortable.”
A corollary to this gap: “I have nothing important to share or contribute.”
This year, 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 90% 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 been in the way of their networking and expanding their sphere of influence and connection.
But many professionals – both introverted and extroverted alike – can’t stand to network and feel it’s fake and uncomfortable. Part of the issue is that many women cannot recognize what they’ve done as valuable or exciting, so they feel they have nothing to share when they’re networking or connecting with others.
I realized (after leaving my own corporate life and my VP role that crushed me) that the reason I hated networking and struggled to talk about my job was threefold: 1) I didn’t connect at all with the actual work I was doing, 2) I wasn’t proud of the business outcomes I was supporting, and 3) and finally, I was ashamed of the type of leader and manager I felt I was forced to become in that role. That made networking and talking about my work with others very difficult.
In the end, it’s impossible to network powerfully when you hate what you do. But without building a powerful support community that can help you grow, and without expanding your network of 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.
Power Gap #5: Acquiescing Instead of Saying “STOP!”
What you tell yourself: “It’s so unfair what I’m going through, but I can’t challenge it.”
A corollary to this gap: “I don’t have control or influence over what happens to me in my life.”
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.
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 claim more power and influence to speak up against what is unfair, unethical and unjust, and claim more power over what happens to us and around us.
Power Gap #6: Losing Sight of Your Thrilling Dream
What you tell yourself: “I have no idea what would make me happier or how I would even get there.”
A corollary to this gap: “I dream of doing something different, but there’s just no way.”
Many women I hear from know what they don’t want in their jobs and careers but can’t name what they do want. That’s a challenge that will keep you trapped in a miserable career or situation. If you can’t name what you long for, or if you’ve lost sight of a dream or vision that used to excite you, you won’t muster the bravery or power to make the necessary changes to leave this bad situation behind.
When women tell me that they simply have no idea what they want to do, but they know it’s not their current career, I relate deeply because I lived this for years in my corporate life – hating what I was doing but not understanding there is a way out, without losing everything in the process.
But there is a way – and it requires embarking on the “finding brave” path to uncover what you long to do, and break it down into doable, digestible steps to explore and try on that new direction without risking everything.
Power Gap #7: Allowing Past Trauma To Define You
What you tell yourself: “I’m devastated by what’s happened to me and I can’t get over it.”
A corollary to this gap: “I’ll never be truly successful because I failed so miserably before.”
This final power gap is incredibly potent and keeps so many women from moving forward to a happier life and career. They’re shattered 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.”
I’ve found that when we’re experiencing deep challenges in life, we humans tend to look only at what’s at the tip of our noses, and we forget all that we are and all that we’ve accomplished before this moment. We begin to listen more closely to detractors, and take in too much around us that tells us we’re not good enough.
In reality, there’s no way to escape pain and failure 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 from this, and grow even stronger and more competent?”
When you can access the power necessary to view your failures as opportunities to expand your capabilities and your vision, then 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, and if any resonate with you, choose the one that generates the most internal pain and shame. Then, starting today, take one small, doable micro step each day to begin to close that gap so that it’s no longer secret, painful, or shameful.
Face it bravely, get outside help to be accountable, and take actions that will finally help you leverage your special talents and abilities, and feel more confident in all that you are and offer.