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Women in Leadership: The Three Greatest Obstacles and How to Overcome Them

December 4, 2013

Marsha Clark

Women as leaders in the workplace- it’s one of our favorite topics at 4word! We believe in you, and the unique talents that God has gifted you with.  You can absolutely impact the kingdom through your chosen profession! This week we spoke with Marsha Clark, of Marsha Clark and Associates, a training and consulting firm in Frisco, TX. Marsha has dedicated much of her career to helping women succeed. We think you will find her advice about women in leadership helpful and inspiring.


4word: When it comes to women in leadership, studies and statistics reveal that there is a significant gap compared to their male colleagues. Can you offer some insight into this data?

Marsha: Men tend to see the world as a hierarchy – think of a sports analogy: coach, start player, A-team, B-team, Benchwarmers.  Women tend to see the world as a flat field – as Dr. Pat Heim describes it: Power Dead Even.  These two lenses influence the way we view leadership (e.g., Male = directive vs. Female = collaborative), relationships (e.g., Male = loyalty comes and goes vs. Female = if you’re my friend, you’re my friend forever), and even what it means to be a good team player (e.g., Male = playing my role in the hierarchy and obeying the coach without question vs. Female = pitching in and doing whatever it takes to get the job done).  This is just to name a few.

4word: What are some of women’s greatest obstacles to assuming leadership in the workplace? How can we overcome them?

Marsha: There are three big ones that come to mind:

  • Most HR-related processes (performance management, succession planning, etc.) claim to focus on the results. Both men and women get results; however,  how they go about achieving the results can be very different.  In fact, many of the HR-related processes focus not only on what you achieve but also how you achieve it. Organizations must be clear to focus on the ‘what’ and allow variances for ‘how’ results are achieved to ensure that women’s results are not unconsciously diminished.

  • Women are less likely to ask for what they want or what they need.  We display behaviors like choosing not to ask at all, making a more modest offer and conceding more rapidly. Rest assured, women will ask on behalf of others! Where we often fail to ask is for ourselves – taking on significant responsibilities without asking for compensation or more senior titles, equal pay in our starting salaries, taking on the work of poor-performing employee rather than holding them accountable.

  • Women often struggle with setting and maintaining boundaries.  We say ‘yes’ when we wish we had said ‘no’.  We take on projects that require us to stay at the office longer rather than honoring our personal commitment to be home by 6:00 PM.

  • We don’t often get the recognition we deserve for the results that we achieve.  The research shows that women deflect praise.  When something goes right, we give everyone else credit or minimize the achievement.  When something goes wrong, we point inward and blame ourselves.  Men do exactly the opposite.  As a result, we often hold the belief that if we work really hard, ‘they’ will notice and offer the praise, the promotion, the reward – in fact, that’s a myth.  I offer women this little equation: Results + Recognition = Influence.  By mathematical principles, if we don’t get the recognition we deserve, we minimize our influence.  I suggest that women put themselves back into the story.  When complimented say something like, “I am proud of the leadership I provided to Project XYZ, and I had a great team to work with.”  I call it the “(I + We)” Principle.  We take nothing away from our great teams when we also acknowledge our own part in it.  Here is the learning point: If we take ourselves out of the story, we’re giving everyone else permission to do the same.

In answering this question, three out of the four bullets are things that women can do to make some fundamental shifts in our opportunities.  I think when we begin to play to our strengths, ask for what we want and need, and acknowledge our achievements – in a humble and servant leadership kind of way – we can begin to shift the organizational culture as well.

4word: What qualities need to be developed before a woman will be seen as a leader?

Marsha: The first point that I would emphasize is women being authentic leaders.  There is no cookie-cutter approach to being a successful leader.  The more traditional list of competencies would be something like strategic thinker, good communicator, have integrity, build strong teams, and develop strong relationships.  Those are all important, AND they can be displayed in a wide variety of ways – while also playing to our strengths.  Know what you do well and surround yourself with people who have complementing strengths.

4word: Is there anything else that you would like to add about women in leadership?

Marsha: Women are great leaders!!  We have demonstrated repeatedly that we can achieve results, build strong internal and client relationships, and that we can build and lead strong teams.  I see things changing as I travel the world delivering women’s leadership programs.  We have to keep challenging the status quo and supporting each other.


Have you faced any of these obstacles at your workplace? Let us know how you handled them! Your story will inspire and encourage other women in similar situations.

One response to “Women in Leadership: The Three Greatest Obstacles and How to Overcome Them”

  1. Dena Dyer says:

    Such great insights here. I’m sure our readers at the High Calling will find this interview so helpful. I’m linking to it this week on our “featured member posts” section. Thanks so much!

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