Skip to content

Seven Pitfalls for Women in Business

We recently conducted in-depth interviews with 2,000 women senior executives across the globe asking them to identify the pitfalls—the self-initiated challenges they experienced as they advanced in their careers, inevitably fell into, and had to work hard on circumventing. What emerged were seven behaviours, all part of the female experience and endlessly repeated by women seeking advancement.

When comparing the seven themes that emerged from our previous research with the overall findings from this study, we notice that the women in this survey were able to avoid or overcome many of the common pitfalls. We also find that a few vex even these successful women who are aware of the presence but still fall into the trap.



1. Making Bold Requests

Women tend not to make them. Men always do. Oprah Winfrey nailed it when she recalled how she was always able to come up with great ideas, then would spend however long it took to talk herself out of them. Is it a reflex of the classic self-critical female rumination coined by psychologists? Whatever its origin, it holds women back precisely because the men in the organization respond so differently.

For men, bold requests are a no-brainer; they tend to shoot from the hip. And while they are boldly stating their position or capability, women are scrutinizing, examining, assessing their own abilities and readiness. It’s said that men with thirty percent of a required skill set will claim expertise while women will hold back from making such claims if they lack even one of the skills on the list.

2. Self-Promotion

Women cling to an outmoded assumption that their achievements will speak for themselves. They might, but only if those achievements—whether individual or as part of a team—are published widely and loudly.

This pitfall reflects the dynamic where a man, more often than a woman, will create opportunities for himself by demonstrating what is considered leadership behaviour in many male dominant cultures. This includes engaging in greater self-promotion, taking credit for his successes, and making known his potential—all that often leads to his promotion.

Women, who tend not to be as self-promoting or even as boastful as men will, are often promoted for past and proven experience rather than the belief in their potential. The net effect is that there are fewer opportunities for women in their career advancement if they are not outspoken and explicit about what they have achieved and can achieve. Your accomplishments only speak for you if you make sure people hear about them.

3. Hard on ourselves

Self-scrutiny is hard-wired into women’s brains—a major differentiation from men. Men tend to externalize and depersonalize the situation while women will often internalize and personalize. Women tend to feel overly responsible and believe they can always do better. It’s exhausting, and leads to ambivalence, and many women opt out of situations because of their internal line of reasoning.

Men are inclined to be singularly focused and their thoughts become a tunnel to their intention. Self-examination, self-doubt, and worry are often outside that tunnel, especially when the heat is on. Because of this, men have an easier time letting go and moving past a mistake or failure. By externalizing and focusing on the end of the tunnel, men tend to depersonalize the situation and feel less a sense of responsibility and worry than women do during the process.

4. Hard Work Gets You Noticed

Yes, and two things happen when you get noticed for how hard you work:
(1) you become indispensable, and when you’re indispensable, no one will ever want to move you away into a new, bigger opportunity so
(2) you become invisible. We call it the loyalty trap—the assumption that loyalty speaks to how much you’re able to produce. In fact, being known for the volume of work you deliver or the amount of time you spend delivering it may be nice, but it is a trap that can dead-end your upward advancement. Women can begin to rectify this situation by positioning themselves as being more strategic to the organization when in discussions with boards and bosses:

Set clear parameters up front as to your capabilities and expectations for the role.
In meetings with superiors, speak to their objectives and frame your conversations so that they always reflect a broader strategy that will help them meet their goals.
Get more face time with higher-level people in other departments and companies by joining networks for strategic reasons, not just to build relationships.

Be more self-initiating by asking to participate in strategy sessions and prospect and client meetings with a clear description of what you will contribute and how it will align with and advance your boss’s goals.

5. Grunt Work

This pitfall is best portrayed through example: a woman CFO is asked to present to the board and jumps in enthusiastically to do the background work. She spends the next two weeks laboring over the creation of a perfect and meaningful presentation to the board that would finally give her a seat at the table—and defeated her own purpose in doing so. She failed to distinguish between a management project and a leadership project, and it ended with her managing the work and the CEO seizing the leadership role. Women need to negotiate for their piece of the leadership pie in a win-win manner, not to take anything away from anyone, but to take their rightful place at the leader’s podium. What should the CFO have done?
Know the objectives of the organization and her boss’s role in it and focus her initial discussions on the strategic intent of the presentation, not the details.
• Men, especially when under pressure and singularly focused on the results, often become drained and frustrated with too many details. He may have let her present to the board if he was confident she wasn’t going to consume valuable board with management details. By addressing the results first, she could have better positioned herself as a focused and strategic thinker who could get to the point.

6. Strategic networking

Women are natural networkers, but they too often forget the strategic part of it. While men network for transactional reasons, women will network for relational reasons. That is, men network to obtain something, while women network for relationships and connections. At an investment bank’s triennial event, a woman senior leader looked forward to re-connecting with colleagues from around the world; she was therefore stunned to see them looking past her or over her head during their conversations. They all had their eyes on the door, waiting for the new CEO to enter so they could race over to introduce themselves. She felt deflated that her colleagues were more interested in positioning themselves than wanting to reconnect and left the reception. Only later did she realize her own foolishness in not seizing the strategic opportunity as her colleagues did.

Women have to realize that it is worth it. Whether the negotiation is for salary, for budget, for the conditions you need to do the job right, it’s essential to stay the course, no matter how long it may drag on.

7. Staying the Course

When the going gets tedious, women tend to get tired or get turned off from the grind. Far too readily and far too often, women will lose passion for the challenge and decide it isn’t worth it. When a law firm’s client began to push back on the number of billed hours, a woman partner was ready to yield, but her male colleague reminded her that every minute spent even thinking about the client’s problem was in the client’s interest—and was billable.

“That is the way this business works,” he told her, “and it profits no one to cave in to a client’s challenge.” Women have to realize that it is worth it. Whether the negotiation is for salary, for budget, for the conditions you need to do the job right, it’s essential to stay the course, no matter how long it may drag on.

The above is excerpted from our White Paper in partnership with Thomson Reuters, “Solutions to Women’s Advancement.”