The cost of ambition: new research finds almost 90 per cent of women worldwide are penalized and undermined because of their achievements at work
The Tallest Poppy™, an international study led by Women of Influence+,
unveils the high price ambitious women pay for their success
TORONTO, ON, March 1, 2023—Women of Influence+, a leading global organization committed to advancing gender equity in the workplace, today released its groundbreaking findings from The Tallest Poppy 2023 study. The first international research project of its kind, The Tallest Poppy uncovers the consequences of Tall Poppy Syndrome and the impact it has on women in the workplace worldwide. Tall Poppy Syndrome occurs when people are attacked, resented, disliked, criticized, or cut down because of their achievements and/or success.
According to the study’s findings, almost 90 per cent (86.8 per cent) of respondents experienced this phenomenon at work. The study heard from thousands of working women from all demographics and professions in 103 countries to determine how their mental health, well-being, engagement, and performance are affected by interactions with their clients, colleagues, and leaders surrounding their success and accomplishments. The Tallest Poppy reveals that women who are successful are being bullied and belittled, challenged on their successes, and made to feel as though it’s not their place to take up so much space.
“Our data tells an eye-opening story about how Tall Poppy Syndrome negatively impacts ambitious, high-performing women, and what this means for organizations,” said Dr. Rumeet Billan, CEO, Women of Influence+ and author of the study. “When reading through stories about personal experiences from respondents, we noted a recurring theme: those who had, or are, experiencing Tall Poppy Syndrome did not know these phenomena had a name. Not only does our data reveal the negative effects of being cut down because of one’s achievements, it helps us understand how the cutting is being done, who is most likely to do the cutting, and most importantly, legitimizes the experiences of women who, in many cases, have experienced this throughout their careers.”
Cutting down Tall Poppies: who is holding the shears?
“According to initial feedback and comments from respondents about Tall Poppy Syndrome, many believe that women are most likely to cut down other women because of their success and ambitions, our data tells a different story,” said Dr. Billan.
The Tallest Poppy study found that men in leadership positions were more likely to penalize or undermine women due to their success. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to cut down peers or colleagues.
The act of “cutting” someone down because of their achievements or success manifests in the workplace in a number of different ways. Any or all of these actions are a form of “cutting” and contribute to Tall Poppy Syndrome:
- 77 per cent of respondents had their achievements downplayed
- 72.4 per cent of respondents were left out of meetings and discussions or were ignored
- 70.7 per cent said they were undermined because of their achievement(s)
- 68.3 per cent had their achievement(s) dismissed
- 66.1 per cent said others took credit for their work
Additional ways people experience Tall Poppy Syndrome include: belittling, being silenced, disparaging comments, and microaggressions.
The impact of Tall Poppy Syndrome
Experiencing Tall Poppy Syndrome is detrimental to a woman’s self-confidence and well-being. Of the respondents surveyed:
- Almost 90 per cent (85.6 per cent) indicated that their stress had increased because of Tall Poppy Syndrome
- 73.8 per cent indicated it had a negative impact on their mental health
- 66.2 per cent cited lower self-confidence
Other effects include feelings of isolation and burnout, and the lack of desire to share or celebrate one’s success or accomplishments.
This phenomenon has a direct impact on productivity and, if not dealt with, can damage an organization’s culture. According to the study, top talent will burnout, check out, and ultimately leave.
“Organizations often talk about the ‘war for top talent,’ when instead, there should be a focus on retaining top talent,” said Dr. Billan. “As a result of Tall Poppy Syndrome, high-performers are minimizing their skills and accomplishments, 60.5 per cent of those who responded to our survey believe they will be penalized if they are perceived as ambitious at work. When ambitious workers find themselves in an environment where excelling is penalized, their productivity will be impacted, and they will have one foot out the door. This not only negatively impacts the individual, but the organization as well.”
- Almost 70 per cent (67.8 per cent) of respondents looked for a new role/job and 50 per cent left their previous role/job
- 75 per cent agreed that experiencing Tall Poppy Syndrome at work impacted their productivity
- Almost 80 per cent (77.5 per cent) said their experience with Tall Poppy Syndrome created a culture of distrust
When the goal is productivity and the impact is the bottom line, understandably, no organization would want to allow Tall Poppy Syndrome to continue in their place of work.
What can organizations do to counter Tall Poppy Syndrome?
Who better to look to for the solution, than those experiencing the impacts of Tall Poppy Syndrome first-hand? When given the opportunity to weigh in about how organizations should be handling this, a few respondents threw their hands up in frustration and resignation.
“I really don’t know,” one said. “I wish I knew.” Others added: “I honestly have no idea,” “I wish I had an answer for you.”
But, many others offered up well-thought-out solutions. The responses came in loud and clear. Women are calling for change and accountability.
Raise awareness – this phenomenon has a name: Tall Poppy Syndrome
Organizations must listen when someone comes forward with a report of being cut down or diminished in the workplace. “Listen to your employees,” said one respondent. “Name it. Talk about it. Share how it’s unacceptable and why. What it does to people, teams, and the organization’s success and culture,” said another.
Hold people accountable
Paying lip service to reports of Tall Poppy Syndrome is a disservice to organizations’ top talent. Action should be real and impactful. “Stop talking and take action,” said a respondent. “Hold people accountable for their actions,” said another. “Recognize it. Recognize that women are treated differently when successful.”
Set a standard of transparency
Whether that means being transparent when it comes to salaries, opportunities for promotions and advancement, or ensuring all employees are held to equal and equitable standards, transparency will do much to remedy Tall Poppy Syndrome in the workplace. “Create a culture of trust and transparency,” said one respondent.
Adopt zero tolerance
No employee should be made to feel less than because they are working hard. In some cases, respondents shared that they were told their accomplishments were making others “look bad.” Success is not something to be blamed and shamed. It is not something that should be downplayed, ignored, or attacked. “Don’t look the other way,” said one respondent. “Acknowledge it happens, create a clear understanding of what it is and how to identify it, and create a culture of zero tolerance.” This can aid in creating and fostering a culture of trust and belonging.
Invest in training for all employees and celebrate wins
“Spend more time and money investing in women training programs, retention programs, and sponsorship (not just mentorship),” said one respondent. Respondents suggested emotional intelligence, communication, bias awareness, and psychological safety as topics that training should focus on. Make a practice of celebrating wins, recognizing, and acknowledging people the way they want to be acknowledged, and create a culture where it’s safe and encouraged to succeed. “Normalize promoting qualified women into positions of power.” And, as one respondent said, “SUPPORT WOMEN.”
The Tallest Poppy study demonstrates that Tall Poppy Syndrome is an issue impacting women in the workplace across countries, organizations, industries, and sectors. No organization or individual is completely immune to it.
During a time when women are burned out, stressed out, and fed up, organizations can no longer afford to drag their feet or turn the other way.
For more information, to download Women of Influence+’s The Tallest Poppy white paper, or to view the infographic, visit: www.womenofinfluence.ca/tps
Methodology: The study was planned and carried out in 2023. An online survey was sent out to contacts in Women of Influence+’s database and was also shared on social media. Most of those who received the survey identify as women. The survey was sent out on January 9, 2023, and closed on February 10, 2023. In the end, 4,710 respondents took part in the survey across 103 countries.
About Women of Influence
For almost 30 years, Women of Influence+ (WOI+) has been the community where ambitious women with wide-ranging expertise, and innovative ideas go to create a new future for themselves and for the world of work at large. A future where women-led leadership thrives. At WOI+, our ethos is rooted in making meaningful and impactful change. We do this by placing ourselves and our community in positions of influence and power — places where we can drive transformation.
We measure influence by impact — the ripples that are made, the doors that are opened, the number of seats that are added to the proverbial decision-making table. Influence is about how decisions, innovations, and systems create a more inclusive and equitable world for everyone. At WOI+, we are unafraid to shake the status quo to transform society’s expectations of our capabilities.
We are dedicated to sharing and elevating the unfiltered success stories of a diverse group of role models. We know that when done right — from the podium or the page — these stories not only inspire, educate, and connect — they start to redefine our perceptions of gender roles and abilities. We are changing the narrative. The result? Our community is equipped with the connections, support, training, and tools to carve new pathways, and excel within their careers on their own terms.
Maricel Joy Dicion, Head of Media
email@example.com | 1-416-882-1192