Five challenges women leaders are more likely to face

By Claire Dale and Patricia Peyto

Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton Fortune 100 and FTSE 100 leadership coaches and authors of Physical Intelligence, discuss five challenges women leaders face.

While women have clearly made significant gains, any list of challenges faced by women leaders must acknowledge the gender gap. Women still typically have to work harder and perform better than their male colleagues in order to be viewed as equally competent. In addition:  1) US women do almost 2x more unpaid care work than men, and 2) there is one incident of sexual violence for every two women in the US.  Viewing challenges women leaders face through that lens, helps clarify why women struggle to shatter that glass ceiling and bring other woman along.  

Addressing the gender gap is a complex sociological issue that requires time and sustained effort.  In the meantime, women leaders face other challenges that are wholly within our power to address – by using our brains and bodies – the answer is rooted in neuroscience. 

You’re familiar with IQ and EQ.  How about Physical Intelligence? Hundreds of chemicals (hormones and neurotransmitters) racing through our bloodstream and nervous system dictate how we think, feel, speak and behave.  Yet, most of us operate largely at the mercy of those chemicals, experiencing thoughts, reactions and emotions without realizing that we can strategically influence them.  Physical Intelligence is the ability to detect and actively manage the balance of certain key chemicals through how we breathe, move, think, and communicate in order to stress less, achieve more, and live (and work) more happily. Simple techniques, applied consistently, have transformed countless lives, while increasing business results. 

Of the 100 Physical Intelligence techniques – these will help address typical challenges women leaders face:

Strength: being assertive without being aggressive, developing vocal strength (not stridency) and holding your ground

Women start out at a disadvantage because they have less testosterone and are more sensitive to changes in testosterone levels than men – levels that drop even further during menopause. Testosterone (along with dopamine, the reward chemical) drives our desire to achieve and compete, enables risk tolerance and confidence and is vital for feeling empowered. To compensate:

  • Perfect your posture.  It impacts how we and others feel and perceive us.  With good posture we feel empowered, stronger, more present, and at ease.  Open, expansive posture projects confidence and indicates leadership; (be careful not to take over the space). 

  • Paced breathing helps us manage our response to demanding situations.  Use it for at least 10 minutes daily to release acetylcholine (counteracting adrenaline):  breathe diaphragmatically, smoothly and regularly, measuring the length of each in- and out-breath; find comfortable counts for you (in and out counts can be different).  

  • Strengthen your voice.  Vocal strength often emerges naturally with open expansive body posture and paced breathing. A strong voice reflects authority and builds the highest levels of belief and confidence in others; people tend to listen to our ideas and trust our opinions. Cortisol constricts vocal cords when we’re most in need of vocal strength.  If stressed, immediately start paced breathing.

Centering and grounding yourself puts things in perspective, boosting confidence and inner strength.  Feel the weight of your body on the ground/in the chair – rooted rather than ‘uptight’. Continue paced breathing, release tension throughout your body; place your center of mass where you need it (move your body forwards, sideways, and backwards to find the optimal point); breathe down to below the navel (to your center of gravity), and focus.  Repeat three times: Balance, Breathe, Focus.


Flexibility: managing tension and freeing your mind for more creativity and innovation

Research shows that low reward, role ambiguity, and job future ambiguity manifest as neck, shoulder, elbow, forearm, hand/wrist complaints. Taking on too much responsibility and role conflict appear as lower back complaints. Guilt (e.g., associated with working full-time while children are still young) can create stomach complaints.  Improving physical flexibility lowers cortisol and improves mental and emotional flexibility, loosening the grip of those stressors. Raising self-awareness, moving more and understanding the underlying causes help prevent complaints from becoming serious conditions – which supports your ability to think more creatively and drive innovation, crucial for leadership success. Enhancing Flexibility involves reducing cortisol and boosting oxytocin, dopamine, DHEA and serotonin by doing the following:

  • Stretch to release ‘hot spots’ where you hold tension.

  • Shake out your arms and legs.

  • Twist at the waist 2x/day.

  • Spark creativity by taking a walk or looking at beautiful objects in art/nature.

  • Promote convergent and divergent thinking across teams.

Resilience: bouncing back from adversity and increasing comfort with conflict

Women are programmed to try to do it all, and often end up depleting their energy reserves.  Being held to a different standard can take a toll. Resilience for female leaders is about reducing longer-term fear levels (and cortisol), pressing forward repeatedly despite setbacks, (e.g., when you hit your head on that glass ceiling again), and adopting an optimistic, learning mindset.  Women are not predisposed to being comfortable with conflict (neither are men but evidence suggests it’s particularly true of women), whether it’s a difficult work conversation or conflicts at home. Dealing with disappointment and conflict is draining. Build resilience before you need it. 

  • Write the word ‘REST’ (Retreat, Eat [healthy], Sleep and Treat) in blocks in your calendar; guard those windows.

  • Revisit a setback or mistake you’ve made. Use visualization to zoom in and see a ‘close-up’ of yourself. Remember the intensity of feelings at the time. Zoom out, hover in wide angle over the scene, including contributing elements past and present. Know that you’re not alone and others have experienced/are experiencing similar situations. If you’re dwelling on something, talk to someone you trust about it, then commit to letting it go.

  • Leverage your Strength, Flexibility, and Resilience reserves to have those 'courageous conversations'.

Endurance: establishing a strategic track record of success

Indra Nooyi, former CEO of Pepsi, advises women to "Embrace tough assignments" because “nobody notices when you do an easy job well...better to challenge yourself by…working to solve problems that no one else has been able to solve...(to) become a trusted leader." That takes strength and endurance, as does simply balancing a leadership role with commitments at home.

  • Set daily and long-term goals and milestones.  Visualize achieving them. To generate energy to drive forward, firm/flex your muscles; say out loud, “Come on!  You can do this!” (boosts dopamine). Celebrate achieving each milestone (boosts dopamine and testosterone).

After enhancing your own Strength, Flexibility, Resilience and Endurance, start developing physically intelligent teams and organizations:

  • Strength:  Have the courage of your convictions – lobby for incremental gains in your own workplace.

  • Flexibility:  Engage in divergent and convergent thinking, sparking creativity and identifying innovative solutions to gender parity.

  • Resilience:  Rebound from inevitable disappointments and support the success of other women.

  • Endurance:  Keep gender parity top of mind by focusing on the long game, establishing your own interim milestones (e.g., hiring, promoting, advocating for, mentoring women).

When you succeed, the world will be better for it.

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