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The Unspoken Truth On What’s Really Holding Women Back In Their Careers – It’s Not What You Think

Sinja Hallam, MBA, is a renowned executive coach, change and transformation whisperer, facilitator and speaker to executives, senior leaders and emerging leaders worldwide. She currently coaches in Fortune 100 companies, has been named as a top 15 executive coach in Adelaide Australia where she lives and coaches in two languages: English and German.

Executive Contributor Sinja Hallam

It is a well-documented fact that in the pursuit of professional success, women often encounter a myriad of obstacles: gender bias, unequal pay, and a lack of representation in leadership roles. This is not another article about how men are to blame but one that discusses the often-overlooked factor of the complex dynamics among women themselves, particularly in male-dominated environments.

Young woman in front of a circular light shape.

My controversial opinion is that women hold each other back, driven by a sense of competition and threat. While this may be uncomfortable to acknowledge, I firmly believe that understanding and addressing this barrier will allow us to make much faster and genuine progress in gender equality in the workplace.

I have experienced this multiple times during my own career. Unfortunately, it took me too long to realise what was happening at the time. In 100% of the cases, the result was me having to look for other opportunities to progress in my career elsewhere even if I wanted to stay with the company which is why I’m now passionate about addressing it.

The landscape of external barriers

External barriers are well documented and vital data surrounding women in the workplace is gathered annually by McKinsey & Company in partnership with Lean In via their Women in the Workplace study. Before delving into the internal dynamics, it's important to acknowledge these external challenges that women face are even more pronounced for women of colour, LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities.

I spent most of my career in male-dominant environments like steel, oil and gas, mining, banking and utilities. We are getting better today, but gender discrimination is still pervasive and well-documented. As a woman, I was often judged more harshly than my male counterparts, had to work harder for the same recognition, and was underrepresented in leadership positions when I finally got there myself.

I often encountered the “old boys' club” mentality especially when I worked in the field. Networking opportunities, mentorship, and informal support systems often excluded me, making it harder for me to advance. Once I had a child my work-life balance disappeared and I found myself juggling my professional responsibilities with being a mum and at the same time also furthering my education and travelling for work to keep my career alive.

Having said this, I also had the privilege of being led by male leaders who became my allies and under them, I found my career flourishing. The downside is that there are not nearly enough allies for women in male-dominated industries.

The unspoken dynamics among women

Whilst some of the external barriers I encountered were challenging, I want to highlight some of the internal dynamics among women themselves that derailed my career progression and my confidence much more than the external barriers ever did.

In my experience, especially in the male-dominated environments I worked in, the scarcity of women in leadership roles lead to a sense of competition rather than collaboration. This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as the "Queen Bee" syndrome, involves women in senior positions distancing themselves from more junior female colleagues and perpetuating the status quo rather than challenging it.

The queen bee syndrome

The term "Queen Bee" was coined in the 1970s to describe women who, having achieved success in male-dominated fields, tend to dissociate from other women and may even hinder their progress. These women might adopt male-associated behaviours and attitudes, downplaying their femininity to fit in. They often resist efforts to promote gender equality, fearing that initiatives aimed at helping other women might undermine their own hard-earned status.

The Queen Bee syndrome is not a universal trait among successful women but is prevalent enough to warrant attention. It highlights a critical issue: the pressure to conform to male standards of success and the fear that helping other women might be seen as a sign of weakness or favouritism.

Competitive scarcity

In environments where women are a minority, there is often also a perception of limited opportunities for advancement. This competitive scarcity can lead women to view each other as rivals rather than allies. The fear that supporting another woman might jeopardize one’s own chances of success can create a toxic atmosphere where women are less likely to collaborate and more likely to engage in behaviours that undermine each other.

Why do women feel threatened

As a result of my experiences, I researched why some women might feel threatened by other women in the broader context of gender inequality. Here are the three top reasons I found:

1. Few places at the top for women

In many workplaces, there is an implicit assumption that there are only a few spots available for women, creating a zero-sum game mentality. This perception is fueled by historical and cultural narratives that pit women against each other, portraying female success as an exception rather than the norm.

2. Lack of mentorship and role models

The scarcity of female mentors and role models in leadership positions exacerbates the issue. Women entering male-dominated fields often struggle to find mentors who understand their unique challenges and can offer relevant guidance. This lack of support can make it harder for women to navigate their careers and may lead to a sense of isolation and competition.

3. Societal expectations and gender roles

Societal expectations also play a significant role in shaping these dynamics. Traditional gender roles often position women as competitors for male attention and approval, rather than collaborators working towards common goals. From a young age, girls are socialized to see other girls as rivals in various domains, whether in academics, sports, or social settings. These ingrained patterns of behaviour can carry over into professional environments, influencing how women interact with one another.

The impact of internal barriers on career advancement

The internal barriers created by competitive scarcity and the Queen Bee syndrome can have profound implications for women's career advancement. It did for me!

These dynamics undermine efforts to build supportive networks and mentorship programs, which are crucial for professional growth. When women are pitted against each other, advocating for systemic changes that benefit everyone is harder. Below are the 2 biggest impacts I experienced myself:

1. Hindering collaboration and innovation

A lack of collaboration among women can stifle innovation and productivity. Diverse teams are known to be more creative and effective, but this potential is often unrealized when internal competition overrides cooperation. Women who feel unsupported by their female colleagues are less likely to share ideas, take risks, or seek out new opportunities.

2. Eroding confidence and morale

The negative interactions among women can also erode confidence and morale. Women who experience undermining behaviors from their peers may begin to doubt their own abilities and worth. This can lead to decreased job satisfaction, lower performance, and higher turnover rates. The cycle of internal competition and lack of support thus perpetuates itself, making it even harder for women to break through the glass ceilings and get over the broken rung.

Strategies for overcoming internal barriers

So what can we do about it? Addressing the internal barriers that hold women back requires a multifaceted approach. It involves changing individual behaviours, fostering supportive organizational cultures, and challenging societal norms.

Promoting collaboration over competition

One of the most effective ways to overcome internal barriers is to promote a culture of collaboration over competition. Organizations can encourage teamwork by creating environments where women feel safe to share their ideas and support each other. This can be achieved through team-building activities, collaborative projects, and recognition programs that celebrate collective achievements.

Building strong mentorship programs

Mentorship is crucial for professional development, yet many women lack access to effective mentors. Organizations should prioritize building strong mentorship programs that connect women at different stages of their careers. Mentors can provide valuable guidance, share experiences, and help navigate challenges specific to women in the workplace.

Encouraging female leadership and role models

Increasing the visibility of female leaders and role models is essential for breaking down internal barriers. Women in leadership positions can inspire and empower others by sharing their stories and advocating for gender equality. Organizations should actively promote women to leadership roles and highlight their achievements to demonstrate that female success is not an exception.

Challenging societal norms and stereotypes

Changing societal norms and stereotypes about women in the workplace is a long-term endeavor, but it is crucial for creating lasting change. This involves challenging traditional gender roles, promoting diverse representations of female success, and educating both men and women about the benefits of gender equality. Media, educational institutions, and community organizations all have a role to play in shifting perceptions and behaviours.

Personal accountability and empowerment

While systemic changes are necessary, individual actions also matter and this is where the most gains can be made effectively now. This is also why I choose to spend most of my time now supporting women who want to take personal accountability for their own behaviours and choices, striving to be legacy leaders through allyship rather than be adversaries. This involves self-reflection, continuous learning, and a commitment to supporting other women. What I encounter as a coach though is that often driven, ambitious women are unaware of the impact they are having. Some of their behaviours are so ingrained they are automatic and happen at the subconscious level.

Self-reflection and continuous learning

Self-reflection is a powerful tool for personal growth. Women can examine their own behaviours and attitudes, identifying any tendencies towards competitiveness or undermining. Continuous learning, through workshops, reading, and conversations, can help develop a more collaborative mindset and effective strategies for supporting other women.

Practicing allyship

Being an ally means actively supporting and advocating for the success of others. Women can practice allyship by mentoring junior colleagues, advocating for fair policies, and challenging discriminatory behaviours. By lifting each other up, women can create a ripple effect that benefits everyone. This path does take courage though and courage comes before confidence.

The path to gender equality in the workplace is complex and multifaceted. While external barriers like discrimination and unequal pay are significant, it is equally important to address the internal dynamics that hold women back. The controversial opinion that women do undermine each other, especially in male-dominated environments, sheds light on a crucial but often overlooked aspect of this issue.

By promoting collaboration over competition, building strong mentorship programs, encouraging female leadership, and challenging societal norms, we can create a more supportive and inclusive environment for all women. Personal accountability and the practice of allyship are also essential for driving change.

As an executive coach, Sinja works with incredible leaders, especially in male-dominated industries. She loves supporting especially female identifying seasoned and emerging leaders in developing their own authentic leadership style, growing their courage and confidence to stand up, speak up and take up the spaces they belong in, as well as illuminating their impact by lending a hand up to others thus creating the ripple effects of change throughout their organisations that will help us, by working together, break down the barriers that hold us back and pave the way for a future where gender equality is the norm, not the exception. If you want to be a Legacy Leader and are looking to uncover your own unique potential for participation in the larger story of our time to broaden the impact and bring about the change we desperately need now, then head to her calendar and book yourself into a complimentary strategy call to discover how you can soar to new heights together and quicker!

Follow me on LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook for more insights, and let's embark on this transformative journey together.


Sinja Hallam, Founder and Executive Coach

Sinja Hallam, MBA, is a renowned executive coach, change and transformation whisperer, facilitator and speaker to executives, senior leaders and emerging leaders worldwide. She currently coaches in Fortune 100 companies, has been named as a top 15 executive coach in Adelaide Australia, where she lives and coaches in two languages: English and German. As a former ballerina and building a career in Organisational Change Management at Portfolio level across industries such as mining, oil & gas, utilities, management consulting, banking and higher education, she understands deeply the complex environments her clients operate in. She is passionate about bringing the heart back into corporate one leader at a time.



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