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The 3 unspoken challenges of women leaders in tech: To be seen, to be heard, and to be ourselves.


caneel executive coach

I'm a social scientist who helps people break out of the invisible traps and make whole-life changes easily and naturally.

As coaches to some of the most influential women leaders in tech, Miriam Meima and I are well versed with the challenges women leaders face. There are several layers: the well publicized challenges; the quiet, subtle aches, and the emerging potential of a new model for leadership, an idea ripe with so much potential we will be focusing on it in an entire article of its own.

What do we know about women leaders?

We all know that many (some would say most) of the issues women face mirror the realities of their male counterparts — co-founder troubles; isolation and loneliness; the struggles of fundraising, growth, and scaling; fear of failure; coping with stress and pressure; leading a team through uncertainty; time management; board management; impostor syndrome; and so on. These are issues humans of any gender are likely to face in the startup world.

In this article we are going to give voice to the issues that disproportionately affect women leaders — not the least of which is making it to the boardroom in the first place. Research shows as little as 5% of leadership positions in tech are held by women. Once there, with all hands on deck at all hours, even eating regular meals and sleeping can feel difficult. Not to mention morning sickness, childbirth, bonding, breastfeeding and childcare, should you opt to have a child. Some of these realities affect anyone with children, but some by definition only affect women. Several young entrepreneurial women have confessed to us that because they’d like to have a baby “some day,” they feel it is not a wise option to remain at a startup or to found their own companies.

Thanks to tireless efforts of past and current women leaders, male allies, and the women in tech movement, women leaders now feel more comfortable honestly discussing and addressing these issues with us as coaches, their own colleagues, and the public at large.

However, there is a whole other list of more privately experienced challenges that may surprise you. These are the issues we have heard over years of private coaching conversations with our female clients, yet rarely, if ever do we witness them being discussed in public formats. By sharing these issues here, we hope more women leaders will find comfort just in knowing they are not alone — and perhaps more importantly, that there are multiple forms of support available which have helped countless powerful women move through the same challenges and grow beyond these fears.

What are women leaders in tech really struggling with?

Three core aches: to be seen, to be heard, and to be ourselves.

Being seen

· Exhaustion with having their gender called out in the first place. Many women leaders want to be seen as executives, period. When gender related challenges arise, many women leaders will choose to ignore them, not wanting to draw additional attention to “common problems for female executives”.

· A fear of being perceived as over-promising and under-delivering, despite honoring commitments and in many cases surpassing goals. It never feels like enough.

· Challenges managing their board. Specifically, deep concerns about how they are perceived by their board, and a double concern about being too concerned about how they are perceived by their board.

Being heard

· Frustration with feeling dismissed or not listened to. Not knowing if the problem is how they communicate or whether biases about their gender make it more difficult to be heard, or if they are defensively imagining that they aren’t being listened to.

· A secret wish that they could find even one person they can trust and be completely honest about the diverse personal and professional challenges they face, without being judged.

· Wanting to be effective without being either “too hard” or “too soft.” Wanting to be authentic, yet worrying that emotional expressivity, sensitivity, or empathy may be mislabeled as “touchy feely” (or worse yet “girly”).

Being ourselves

· Wanting [actually feeling they NEED] to remain “likable” while still effectively driving results and holding team members accountable.

· Sensing that their power as a leader is strongest when they are authentic, but sensing that their vulnerability will not be respected if revealed.

· Feeling judged for having a personal life; feeling that they need to ignore or hide their personal life or disguise how important it is to them.

· And then there remains an unspoken challenge, a catch-22: feeling exhausted or overwhelmed with being representatives of the women in tech discussion, regardless of if it is something they have actively engaged in or not.

What’s a woman to do?

In our view, being a woman in tech is simply different than being a man. It brings its own layers of challenges to an already challenging path. That said, the solutions are extremely personal — this is not a one size fits all fight. Here are a few things that our clients have found to be profoundly supportive in understanding challenges and finding their own unique ways to thrive as leaders.

1. Peer support: Finding a community where you feel safe being honest and open about your challenges is a vital first step. It is ideal for every leader to find peers to share openly with. In the presence of people who can deeply relate to your experience, you can simply be, without judgement or fear. You can cultivate a deep understanding that you are not alone. Some of our female clients share that in a group of women, gender fades into the background and uniqueness (of strengths, passions and focus) becomes the focal point of conversation. For many, women’s circles become essential platforms for leadership development.

2. Radical self-inquiry: Regularly take a deep, honest, courageous look into your motivations, values, fears and guiding principles; in our experience this is essential for authentic leadership and ongoing learning. A leader who knows her true self is able to tap into her unique brilliance to make decisions based on what she believes is best — not others’ expectations, beliefs or needs. This is true leadership.

3. Practical skills: Women leaders can turn to mentors, experts and yes, coaches, for practical skills that will support them in leading authentically. For those who feel called to participate in the women in tech movement (or who repeatedly are invited to participate), connect with your own unique and authentic experience to decide what voice you’d like to have. The experience of women (over half of the world’s population) is incredibly diverse and nuanced, and each of our voices matters. What do you truly want to say? What part of your experience and perspective is longing to be explored, shared, seen and heard? That is for each of us to decide. Perhaps of larger importance than any panel, program or conference is that each of us — men and women alike — can come from a place of personal power, wholeness, integrity, and connection. To be seen. To be heard. To be ourselves.

4. Dream: Lastly, continue to dream; to expand your understanding of what is possible for you and for women as leaders in general. There is an emerging potential in female leadership that takes this conversation to a whole new level of consciousness, which we will explore in detail in a separate article: What does it look like when I’m not attached to the issues and problems?

It’s these unique challenges and our strong belief that the solution lies in these Reboot principles — Radical Self-Inquiry + Peer Support + Practical Skills — and the outcome of Reboot’s practice — Greater Resiliency + Enhanced Leadership — that has us so excited to be facilitating a new Leadership Circle (Reboot’s word for coach-led peer groups) just for Women Executives in tech. It will be a safe and powerful place for female executives to lean into these challenges and unlock their full leadership potential. To be seen. To be heard. To be ourselves.


This post was co-authored by Miriam Meima. We are the coaches facilitating Reboot’s upcoming Women Startup Leaders’ Circle, and this article was originally posted on Reboot’s Medium blog on October 17, 2016.

Please share it with a woman you know, who might need to know that she is not alone.

Photography by Kelley Raye //

Dr. Caneel Joyce is a CEO Coach and social scientist who helps people break out of the invisible traps and make whole-life changes easily and naturally.

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