Women have made some amazing advances in education. The enrolment of females in higher education tripled globally between 1995 and 2018. In numerous developing countries this trends continues. Today, females form the majority of undergraduate students and globally, are more  likely  to  complete  tertiary  education  than  their  male  counterparts, gaining more degrees.

Yet, despite these educational achievements, women have not seen these gains translate into gender parity in access to leadership and decision making positions throughout society. As of 2023, women account for 28% of CEO and Managing Director roles according to the Grant Thornton Women in Business Report. According various estimates, it will take another 132 years to address the global gender gap.

Reasons for these disparities are complex and varied, and one explanation is visibility.  I coach many educated, experienced, expert women who have not gained the recognition they deserve.  They feel frustrated watching less capable others advance into leadership positions. Often, they and their work are not sufficiently visible. Their good/hard work habits don’t necessarily translate into promotions or raises, including leadership opportunities.

Educational Success ≠ Career Advancement

Hard work equals success in the education system.  Whilst the recipe is much more complex in organizational life, where advancement, particularly into leadership positions calls on a mix of skills and competencies, including the capacity to make you and your work visible. Unfortunately, many women rely on the habits that served them so well in the education system in the world of work, not having developed the skill and practice of being visible in the workplace.

In school, girls learn that:

  • Compliance is rewarded – girls gain praise and recognition when they adapt to authority rather than challenging the status quo. Compliance suits early career roles, but transitioning to leadership requires both setting and breaking the rules.
  • Evaluation is objective, based on quantifiable evidence/facts, resulting in a fair outcome (grade). In organizational life, women may still believe that “my work should speak for itself” – yet they are not rewarded for this with pay, promotion and leadership opportunities in the same fair, objective manner.
  • Preparation is your superstrategy.  Girls tend to be more conscientious and self-disciplined – gaining success at school. Preparation works in early career stages, but leadership requires a broader repertoire of behavioural skills.

There is a lot of conditioning applied to girls and women, particularly around what it means to be a “good girl” in and out of school. This means we can consciously/unconsciously “lean in” to “desired” traits like respect for authority, obedience, rule-following, and people-pleasing – all qualities that are useful at the start of one’s career, but they can hold one back from advancing.

Part of becoming a leader is moving from a doer to a delegator, from an order-taker to a rule-breaker, from a technical expert to a strategist, from “me” to “we.” This requires a different set of attitudes, skills, and ways of showing up. We need to unlearn some lessons.

3 Lessons to Relearn


1. “Boasting is bad” to “Sharing is generous!”

 Instead of thinking you’re “bragging” when talking about your successes, think of it as “informing” or “celebrating.” Share your accomplishments with pride.

One client, Sylvia, asked me how she could talk about her recently published scientific article without sounding arrogant. We discussed these tactics:

  • Mental reframe:  Rather than self-promotion, think of it as sharing something valuable to benefit others.
  • Self-Coach:  Imagine what you’d say to your best friend, if she felt this way. You’d encourage her to be proud of her contribution and share widely.

When Sylvia saw sharing her article through a lens of contribution and service, rather than self-promotion, she developed a positive emotional response to promoting her work.

2. “Don’t question authority!” to “Leaders make and break rules”

Being a leader means challenging authority and being comfortable making and breaking the rules (responsibly of course). You may also be questioned, which can be uncomfortable. Women may have to navigate the double bind and likeability conundrum and its associated backlash. But as you advance, your leadership value focuses less on following the rules.

My favorite coaching questions on this are:

  • What relationship to authority supports your leadership?
  • Which of your own rules would you most like to break? What are the best and worst possible outcomes?
  • How do you decide when to disrupt, and when to play it safe?
  • How would you like to manage challenge or confrontation? What steps can you take to make that happen?

3. “Preparation is the golden rule” to “Prep AND improv are key”

I am a big fan of preparation – I think it can do wonders to the quality of our  work and the delivery of it. That said, anything can be taken to an extreme where it starts to lose its intended value. We need to engage preparation and improvisation.

Consider Allana, an experienced senior manager who came to coaching to improve her ability to inspire her team and gain recognition in her organization. She spent so long preparing slides for meetings that her delivery “didn’t inspire and bring others along.”

I asked her to describe her process in preparing for important meetings. Upon reflection, Allana realized that her go-to process relied on crafting “a perfect presentation… thoroughly researched and covering every possible contingency.” This perfectionism and data-focus meant that Allana’s presentations were overworked and turgid. She missed opportunities to engage and inspire her team and audience, and she skimped on time to rehearse and hone her delivery skills, making her “stiff and uninspiring.”

I asked Allana to reflect on the following questions – which you can use, too:

  • What else could you do to increase your chance of success?
  • Approached with the goal of inspiring others, what would the process look like?
  • If you spent 20% less time perfecting, what would be different?

Allana decided to set an intention to focus on inspiring, engaging and mentoring her team. She also set an intention for her leadership based on what she wanted to achieve – i.e. the ability to inspire and influence.


As Marshal Goldsmith says: “what got you here won’t get you there.” Career advancement, pay rises, and transitions into leadership require more than just preparation and hard work. Additional tools enable us to navigate workplaces that require and reward visibility, risk-taking, and flexibility.

Whilst school may be out for many of us, we have the opportunity to continue our learning forever.


Please note that an earlier version of this post appeared in Forbes.


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