8 Hurdles Women Leaders Face & How to Coach Them Effectively | by Delaney Tosh

Women Leader


It's no secret a large gender gap in leadership exists, but the reasons may be more complex than we first assume. This article will highlight the primary hurdles for women leaders and identify coaching approaches to help women more effectively contribute their brilliance to our world.

According to McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org's Women in the Workplace study, women are doing their part - earning more degrees than men, asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men, and they are, in fact, staying in the workforce at the same rate as men.

Clearly, there is more at play that has women still underrepresented and less supported in leadership.

Some of the barriers to advancement for women are external and require workplaces to do their part building awareness of unconscious biases, and ensuring women have equal opportunities for mentorship and advancement. However, some of the barriers women face come from how women have been socialized to show up in the world.

The bottom line is that women face more hurdles in their careers than men. And to effectively coach female leaders, coaches should expand their own awareness of these unique hurdles. Some of these hurdles are obvious and some subtle, so keep in mind that your female clients may not be aware of some of the factors holding them back.

3 Key External Hurdles for Women Who Lead

1) Being treated unequally

Women don't always have equal opportunities for advancement, or equal consideration for projects and promotions. This is a difficult one to coach a female leader around, but helping them to build awareness of the hurdles in this article will help her develop strategies to reduce the impact this societal reality may be having on her career.

2) Lack of mentorship and sponsorship

Many women are either not seeking these leadership development supports or not being offered them. Either way, it's important that women intentionally establish this support in their career growth.

What Coaches Can do to Help:

Explore with your client how she will surround herself with sound mentors and sponsors. This will help her 1) increase her likelihood in gaining relevant experiences for growth and 2) get the feedback needed for advancement, as well as better overcome the unconscious biases she faces.

3) Unconscious bias:

The powerful force of unconcscious bias works subtly against women's careers. It's the inherent or learned stereotypes we all develop regarding people - typically along the lines of ethnicity, gender, social status, sexuality, job title, age and body mass. We are unwittingly influenced by these biases, which means we make snap decisions (often unfair) without truly knowing we are doing it.

Women in leadership face several kinds of unconscious bias, such as:

  • Attribution bias
  • Assumption bias
  • Double-bind bias

This means a woman may be seen as less capable than male colleagues even when she has more skills and experience. Also, the double-bind phenomenon has women who speak directly seen as abrasive, while male counterparts, being equally direct, are seen as competent and likeable.

Women too, are guilty of unconscious bias against other women. A study found that when a woman's name was replaced with a man's name on a resume, evaluators (male and female) were 60% more likely to say they would hire the applicant (LeanIn.org).

There is a video resource with terrific tactics women can use to navigate unconscious bias at the end of this article.

5 Internal Hurdles for Women Who Lead

1) Imposter Syndrome

Research shows that women, more than men, doubt and downplay their abilities and qualifications, while men overinflate theirs. The result of this doubt and downplay is that women hesitate to take the lead on high-profile projects, or wait until they have more credentials, experience and training before seeking promotion.

Imposter Syndrome is a form of self-sabotage that calls on you as a coach to help your client explore how to own her brilliance and trust her voice.

What Coaches Can do to Help:

Building awareness is key. I've found it helpful to educate clients on this phenomenon, because many women think they're just being logical and don't realize the damage it's doing.

Tools for coaches to draw on are building self-trust, acknowledging strengths and developing a more powerful inner sage voice.

Coaching Enquiries for Imposter Syndrome:

  • What has you hesitate?
  • How do you hold yourself small?
  • When do you downplay your capacity?
  • What can you trust in yourself?
  • What are your signature strengths?
  • How will you own your brilliance?
  • What's more possible when you 'just do it!' and take action?

2) Diminishing themselves through posture and speech

There are several ways women diminish themselves through posture and speech:

  • Hedging: "I'm not sure, but what if we did it this way_____?"
  • Uptalk or Upspeak: Raising the tone of voice at the end of sentences which makes softens a statement and makes them sound like a question.
  • Vocal fry: A dry creaky voice, in the low register (google this for examples - it's hard to describe properly)
  • Apologizing when it isn't needed: "I'm sorry, but I don't think that is the right strategy."
  • Self-deprecation: "Well, you know me, numbers aren't my strong-suit."
  • Taking up less physical space: Hunching over, crossing legs and arms, and other physical cues of inferiority or smallness.

When women exhibit diminishing speech patterns they are 'dumbing themselves down' and the reasons are complex. But they generally stem from a desire to be likeable or a fear of being criticized.

Some women in senior roles suggest using a mix of 'masculine' and 'feminine' traits to be assertive, and then approachable as needed, but my advice is to aim for being respected and authentic.

What we can do as Coaches:

Self-awareness is the antidote. Women need to be aware of how they lean into likability at the expense of effectiveness and respect.

Is your client diminishing her presence? If so, she will not been seen as a key contributor. Help her practice more straightforward communication, drawing from her strengths and values.

And lastly, you can practice some power poses with your client!

Editor's Note: In a confidence workshop I used to deliver to women, we talked about posture. We would hunch over, stand tall, cross legs and arms, uncross them - and more. For each pose we would 1) discuss how it made people feel and 2) how they thought others looked in the various poses. It was a powerful lesson in 1) awareness of how our body language appears to others and 2) the powerful effect of the body on our mind - that simply taking a confident pose can make us feel more confident!

Coaching Enquiries:

  • What is it to be authentic?
  • When do you doubt yourself? What is the impact?
  • Which values guide you in (and prevent you from) speaking with authority? (e.g. is there a hidden belief that to be direct is to be rude?)
  • What is the impact of telling yourself you're less capable than you actually are?
  • What would your inner sage tell you?
  • How could you verbalize your strengths rather than your weaknesses?
  • How can you embody the energy of strength (or directness, or capacity)?
  • What does confidence feel like in your body?

3) Rumination

According to neuroscience, the region of the brain responsible for rumination and worry is larger and more active in women's brains. While this may mean women take more well thought-out actions, it also means women spend more time ruminating over missteps or perceived criticisms.

Over-personalizing and overthinking things takes emotional energy and triggers stress. It also has women bog down in internalizing perceived failures, eroding resilience and confidence.

What we can do as Coaches:

Combat this by helping your client build awareness of the impact of rumination - and help them learn to externalize situations (ie. not just blaming themselves).

Help them replace rumination and self-recrimination with the art of reframing and acknowledging the external factors.

When leaders ruminate, they fail to take decisive action. But when they reframe, they see opportunities for growth. Delaney Tosh

Coaching Enquiries:

  • When do you notice yourself ruminating or taking things personally?
  • What are your internal messages?
  • What are you not letting go of? What are you not embracing?
  • How can you reframe this to help you move into positive action?
  • What are more supportive thoughts you will draw on? (inner sage)
  • What feedback can you seek to help you gain perspective?
  • How will you transform your learning into forward action?
  • What is it to trust yourself?

4) Perfectionism

Also know as "Fear of failure". Women can mistake striving for perfection as a strength and not see it for the quiet saboteur it often is.

Perfectionism goes hand-in-hand with imposter syndrome. That said, coaches should be aware that female leaders are judged more harshly for their missteps than male leaders and this could be a factor fueling perfectionism.

What we can do as Coaches:

Building awareness of the inner critic is helpful, as is exploring beliefs about failure. Leadership literature tells us that failing fast is one of the most undervalued leadership skills supporting confidence. This means that helping your female clients embrace failure is an important skill, along with embracing a growth mindset.

Coaching Enquiries:

  • What's the fear?
  • How might striving for perfection be stalling your career?
  • What could be the benefit of launching your idea, project, strategic plan in an imperfect state?
  • How might your idea of readiness be unreasonable?
  • What is a new relationship you'd like to have with failure?
  • Let's create a plan for how you can transform criticism or failure into growth and forward motion.

5) Resilience

Your female clients may face a lot of pressures both in their leadership roles and in their personal lives, which can feel overwhelming. It's important for women to develop habits and thought-patterns that bolster resilience.

What we can do as Coaches:

Help your female clients thrive by:

  • Helping them embrace their authenticity through deepening their relationship with their core values and sense of purpose.
  • Introducing mindfulness practice to help rewire the brain to calm the amygdala, reducing reactivity, while increasing prefrontal cortex activity enhancing planning, decisiveness and emotional control.
  • Encouraging wellness and recovery habits to ensure adequate physical, emotional and cognitive energy to see them through demanding days.
  • Helping them to learn adaptability to better respond to setbacks with optimism.
  • Offer them tools to buffer the negative energy of others.
  • Encourage them to engage in a solution-focused mindset.
  • Acknowledge your client's strengths and courage, and encourage her to acknowledge herself.

Resource Box:

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Delaney Tosh Headshot

Contributing Author:

Delaney Tosh, CPCC, PCC, coaches women who want to radiate with confidence and thrive as leaders. She helps her clients navigate the hurdles unique to women in leadership and also delivers the Resilience at Work® Toolkit and Resilience at Work® Leader Scale, helping leaders and teams create optimal performance through resilience. She is co-creator of the Phoenix-Hearted Woman retreats and webinars, designed to help women build resilience and strengthen their foundation for being heard and making a difference in the world. Connect with Delaney at SquarePeg Leadership or on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Delaney & see all their articles here >>

Image of Woman Leader by Yuriy Golub via Shutterstock


  1. Lucy Muthaura

    Wow this is just wonderful and just in time. Thanks Delaney. I am coaching women in leadership in addition to other coaching areas. I am a woman leader myself and this has been very helpful.

    • Emma-Louise

      Hi Lucy, I love Delaney's work - so glad you fond this article on how to coach women leaders effectively helpful! Warmly, Emma-Louise

    • Emma-Louise

      Hi Bonnie, so glad you like it. Delaney's work is well-informed and inspiring too 🙂 We are very glad to have her as a guest author. Warmly, Emma-Louise

  2. Linda Reddin

    Very comprehensive, and excellent list. I appreciate the well-thought out questions, and will remember them for my clients. Thank you!

    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Linda, thank-you for taking the time to comment! Delaney's articles are always original, inspiring and well-thought-out! Glad you liked this one on how to coach women leaders 🙂 Warmly, Emma-Louise

  3. Alessandra Mulliri

    What a fantastic theme... thanks for sharing. Amazing food for thought


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