Coaching Women Leaders Through Obstacles

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Feeling stuck at work? Learn three coaching strategies to help you navigate unwritten gender rules in the workplace.

By Mary K. Kuentz

It’s an extraordinary time to be a woman who leads. While women have always been leaders, what makes this time extraordinary is that women are visibly breaking down the social and cultural barriers to formal leadership positions in organizations, community activism, and government. More and more women are stepping forward to bravely confront what stands in the way of a more just, inclusive, and sustainable world. 

Despite the breakthroughs that women leaders are making around the world, we still confront dynamics of oppression and injustice in the workplace and in our daily lives, navigating unwritten rules and expectations for how a woman should show up. We lead within social structures, laws, and systems that limit the freedom and flourishing of all women based on race, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, and more.

Even in the most progressive settings, obstacles to women’s success are embedded into relationships and systems. This has many women leaders feeling frustrated and confused about how to be powerful and effective in organizations they love and are committed to serving.

Here are three coaching strategies that can help women transform their leadership in the presence of obstacles.

1. Making the Invisible Visible

Many women leaders grew up in cultures and families where patriarchy is prevalent. Even in a culture that claims to value equality, women are often met with invisible cultural and social conditioning that reinforces gender inequality. Many women internalize the oppression, driving themselves to become successful and perfect in order to prove their worth. While this drive can be a crucial ingredient to their success, many women become relentlessly self-critical in order to meet ever higher expectations. No matter how much they accomplish, they walk around feeling like unworthy imposters, judging themselves for not being good enough. This can be especially true for women of color and transgender women who are navigating additional barriers of oppression. 

It is important to identify the invisible dynamics that are at play internally and externally. Many women think the problem is in “themselves” when actually they are working against many invisible factors, including their own internalized beliefs that reflect a system or a culture that may be working against them. Making the invisible dynamics visible can help a woman redirect her power so that she becomes a more effective change agent in the system; one who is working for, rather than against, herself.

2. Aligning the Body, Mind & Spirit

In a world that worships the brain, a woman learns that the wisdom of her body and spirit are often best left at the office door. The intelligence of the whole self gets sacrificed while the logical mind overrules the desires and the deepest calling of the heart. I’ve witnessed this struggle in many women, where the mental knowing dominates spiritual vision and intuitive knowing to such a degree that the mind ends up bullying the heart and spirit into submission.

I coached a client who was so invested in her mind that she was willing to overlook important cues from her spirit and body about a significant career move. She was a white woman working in academia who was burning out from the relentless pace she was expected to keep. Her gut told her to walk away but because she couldn’t clearly articulate all the reasons to leave, she doubted her gut. Her mind convinced her that it all looked good on paper, so she should stay and “buck up” even though her emotional and physical health were strained. Through coaching, she learned how to give attention and air time to all three dimensions of herself, leading her to a more fitting position where she could bring more of her whole self to work.

3. Appreciative Inquiry

Dominant cultural conditioning has many women focused on their flaws and what isn’t working. It’s common for women leaders to receive mixed messages that they are either “too much” or “not enough.” When a woman internalizes this message, she loses touch with her natural strengths, feeding self-doubt and impacting her ability to effectively lead herself and others.

Coaching with Appreciative Inquiry focuses on the natural strengths and resilience within as a way of tackling the obstacles we face today. It assumes that what we pay attention to “appreciates” or grows in value. If we focus on what isn’t working, that will take up a lot of our attention. Likewise, if we focus on our natural ability and core strengths, they will grow, as well. Women become more successful by placing focus on the qualities that make her successful and emphasizing what is already working well.

As frustrating and damaging as systemic obstacles can be, they take a long time to change. While we work to create change in the outside world, women leaders can also do the important work of dismantling these structures where they exist within their own lives and work. By increasing awareness, challenging internalized beliefs, and shifting behaviors, we create more peace and equity from the inside out.