Thought Leadership: 5 Harmful Ways Women Feel They Must Adapt in Corporate America
This article was produced by Deepa Purushothaman, Lisen Stromberg, and Rutgers Business School finance professor Lisa Kaplowitz. It was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
Summary. Recent research shows that while almost half of women in executive positions considered leaving their jobs in 2021, only a fraction of them actually made the leap. The author’s respective (predominately U.S.-based) research shows that high-performing women often pay a hefty price — in the form of intense pressure, mental and physical health issues, and unsustainable workloads — by staying in their jobs. The authors’ survey of thousands of high-performing professional women reveals five maladaptations most women have adopted to rise in corporate America. Women need to retire these maladaptations, but more importantly, company leaders need to be aware of them and redesign their cultures to enable their women leaders to thrive, not just survive.
In the midst of the Great Resignation and so-called “quiet quitting,” women in senior leadership have continued to soldier on. While 49% of executive women considered leaving their jobs last year, only 8% actually did, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Women in Revenue. This might seem like good news if you’re a company leader eager to retain some of the most highly coveted talent on your payroll, but for the women themselves, there is a high cost to staying put.
In our respective (predominately U.S.-based) research, we have spoken to and surveyed thousands of high-performing professional women. On the surface, these women appear to have “arrived.” They’re role models, company leaders, and pillars of their communities. But as we delved deeper, many of them, particularly women of color, are in crisis, struggling to live up to the demands of the ideal worker and within the constraints of a workplace not designed with them in mind. Trying to do it all and be it all leaves these women with debilitating health issues, disproportionate workloads, and pressure to perform at all costs. As one senior executive shared, “The higher I go, the more I hurt.”
The women we interviewed have been taught to accept and adapt to the business cultures around them. As one Asian American woman executive shared, “Denial is the only way I can survive and do the job I was hired to do.” Our research reveals five maladaptations most women have adopted to rise in corporate America. We chose to call these behaviors “maladaptations” because we see them as harmful adaptations rather than positive, helpful modifications or coping strategies. Each one on its own is detrimental to women’s mental and physical well-being, but unfortunately, we found that most women adopt many of these behaviors, which further compounds their impact.
Women need to retire these maladaptations, but more importantly, company leaders need to be aware of them and redesign their cultures to enable their women leaders to thrive, not just survive. Here’s what to look out for.
Maladaptation #1: I need to be perfect.
Study after study has revealed that women are viewed by both men and other women as having lower leadership potential and being less competent than men with similar skills and backgrounds. Given the bias against them, the women we interviewed felt they had to be “perfect” to reach their seats. This leads to hyper vigilance and extreme self-criticism. Even when things are going well, these women fear the other shoe will drop at any time: They’re constantly on their guard and in fight-or-flight mode at work. “I feel like people around me are just waiting for me to fail,” one leader told us. “I find myself working harder to ensure nothing — absolutely nothing — goes wrong.”
Our research revealed that this tendency toward perfectionism presents more severely for women of color (WOC), who have been told — and who have internalized — that they need to work at least twice as hard, if not harder, than everyone else to even get to the table. Sofia,* a Latina woman and public board director, shared:
Even at this level of my career, I spend hours prepping for meetings. I will write out questions and do research well beyond what the other board members are doing because I know [they] question my being here. I see it during breaks and even between meetings. My difference is so visible I have to be perfect and overcompensate by over-preparing.
As the “only” in the room, many women, and particularly WOC, believe their success or failure will serve as a generalization for the success or failure of their entire cohort. Ronnie, a Black woman from the Midwest, said it best when she explained:
When I joined my company, I knew I was the only Black person in my division. But after six months, I now know I am the only one in the entire company. I feel such a responsibility for making sure I represent Black people in a strong way to my white colleagues because I am the only Black person some of them have ever met in real life.
Maladaptation #2: I need to fit in to rise.
Many women at the top have learned that in order to rise, they must assimilate. These women feel a pressure to conform and give up parts of their core identity to advance professionally. Many women talked about sitting in seats of power but not actually feeling powerful. One woman told us, “I think so deeply about the image I want to construct with what I share about my life. I have only recently put up pictures of my kids at work because I didn’t see my peers doing it.” Another senior director shared, “Our leadership is made up of white men. I feel a need to blend in, not stand out right now. I know everything I do is being watched.”
WOC felt additional pressure to leave aside aspects of their ethnic and cultural identities and often went to great lengths to hide parts of their personal lives that might make them appear different than their peers. An immigrant from Latin America told us, “I didn’t bring in anything that spoke to the country where I was born or the culture I was brought up in. My accent already draws attention to the fact I am different; I didn’t want to add any more to that difference story in case it would hurt me in getting to the next level.”
Concepts like executive presence and professionalism were often full of coded messages the women internalized, causing them to edit their behaviors and how they presented themselves. As one woman described, “I struggle with the idea of ‘professionalism.’ It feels like a white construct used to judge if I belong. Yet, I know it is how I get evaluated, so I do it.”
And yet, despite their efforts to assimilate, many women told us they had been passed over for promotion, and they learned the reason was “fit.” Mattie, a CFO of a public company, shared:
I was up for a promotion and promised it was mine. And then all of a sudden, I didn’t get it and found out only when the announcement was made. Even though I had the requisite experience and had stepped into the role by doing parts of the job already, the position went to one of the other men on the team. When I pushed my leaders on why this happened, they said there was some question about my long-term “fit.”
Maladaptation #3: I need to sacrifice to succeed.
All of the women we spoke to, especially those of color, were producing and engaging beyond their formal scope of work. Whether it’s through mentoring, DEI commitments, retention discussions, or recruiting other talent from diverse communities, high-achieving women take on significant extra responsibilities. Because they’re often the “only,” these women are asked to do more, particularly in an effort to help other women. In most cases, they struggle to say no or negotiate and end up taking on the extra tasks without any clear incentive or additional compensation, and often at the expense of doing work that would more directly lead to career advancement.
Not surprisingly, the women we met were exhausted — and we can relate. They’re sacrificing their well-being and physically feeling the stress from work. They’re ignoring the signs their bodies are giving them in order to perform and achieve: signs like headaches, adrenal fatigue, skin rashes, heart palpitations, stomach pain, and fertility challenges. For most senior women, it’s their health that finally draws attention to the need for change.
While all of the high-achieving women we interviewed are burned out, our research revealed that the women of color are also traumatized. In addition to the exhaustion from trying to be perfect, assimilating into a work structure that doesn’t truly value what they bring, and taking on the additional work of being the “only,” WOC are dealing with trauma related to racism and suffer deeply from microaggressions in the workplace. Many of the women we met believed they must tolerate this behavior to be in corporate spaces. Shilpa illustrated this so clearly when she said:
I have spent the last few years wondering why I was so exhausted and my body was failing me. I have been to the doctor many times. I’m the only WOC at the VP level, and I was convinced I needed to grow thicker skin. When I finally decided to leave my job, so many women from the company reached out to me. They were fed up with the culture, too. It never occurred to me how many of the other women I know are suffering.
Maladaptation #4: I need to do it alone.
With the myth of meritocracy still infused across corporate America, most of the women told us they’ve felt forced to go it alone in their rise to the top. One woman, Mia, shared, “I think I was taught, I had to go at it alone, but I am not sure where I picked that up, or why I am proud of the fact I have done it alone.” These women have climbed the ladder with determination and find themselves sitting in coveted seats. They’re finally “at the table,” but they have few trusted advisors or truly safe spaces where they feel seen and accepted. Their professional male mentors don’t understand their full experience, and many of the women haven’t had time or space to build outside relationships because of the demands of their career and family life.
This pattern becomes most apparent when things go wrong. Additionally, many women find themselves promoted to their first leadership positions during times of crisis, which is likely to set them up for failure (this is known as the “glass cliff” phenomenon). In times of strife — either personal or professional — these women feel how alone they are. When Mia was passed over for a transfer to a new department with a bigger role, she was told she needed more time to grow her confidence. She shared:
No one ever said that to me until I pushed for an explanation. I didn’t realize until I was part of your group discussion how prevalent this type of feedback was for women at my level. I spent months wondering if I had misread the queues or if something in how I presented myself had changed.
This issue presents as more acute with the WOC we work with — because there are fewer WOC in senior positions, there’s more “aloneness.” Sonia faced an incident of racism at work, and after six weeks of agonizing over whether to take formal action, she finally filed a complaint. The mostly male, white team members around her were unsupportive and conveyed both directly and indirectly that she wasn’t being a team player. Sonia struggled as the issue was investigated, and she realized how few advocates she had to support her in the process. Her friends and family tried to listen, but it became glaringly clear how few professional WOC she could call for support and advice.
Our research told us that many high-achieving women spent their time focused on “arriving.” In the process, they haven’t had time to build full, robust relationships or support mechanisms either in or outside of work.
Maladaptation #5: Success means having it all.
When the concept of having it all came into vogue in the 1980s, it was not intended to mean that women work outside the home and do all the laundry and cooking and diaper changing. Yet the underlying social norms have resulted in women doing more of the housework and childcare than men, regardless of who has a higher-paying job. On top of that, 70% of high-earning men have stay-at-home spouses, while only 22% of high-earning women do.
Combine this with the conflicting struggle of trying to embody both the ideal worker, ideal partner, and ideal mother. Many of the women we interviewed struggle with feeling that they’re “enough.” In their rise to the top, high-achieving women told us in story after story that they spent so much time proving themselves at work, their personal lives suffered. Married women told us they didn’t have that same level of energy for their households or their marriages. Susan, a senior woman in banking, told us, “I have spent 20 years climbing the ranks to SVP. I make more than my husband, and I know that is a growing issue for him; I just avoid it.” Single women explained that it was hard to find significant others because so much of their time was spent at work or thinking about work.
This “loss of balance” makes their success, no matter how impressive on paper, feel hollow and stifling, as though it were something to endure and prop up, rather than celebrate and embody. One woman described:
I know I am a success on paper, but my life feels like a failure when I look at my marriage and how much energy I have available for my kids. I am running on empty and I feel like I am just trying to keep everything afloat. I run from one problem to the next without enough time for anything. I’m finally asking myself, is it worth it?
The toxic behaviors these maladaptations give rise to rarely work for any of us. And maladaptations don’t just impact women; men have been forced to create their own set of coping mechanisms in their rise to the top.
For women, it’s time we evolve beyond these maladaptations and (re)claim our agency. Rather than maintain the status quo, company leaders need to collectively change their acceptance and tolerance of maladaptations and reject the binary of “leaning in” or “leaning out” as the makers or breakers of success. Instead, they need to recognize that women need to lean within and listen to their own wisdom about what it means to be healthy, whole, and successful. Women can’t just stop these maladaptations and survive on their current tracks; companies need to evolve, too.
* Names used in the article have been changed.
Lisa Kaplowitz is the executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women in Business and an assistant professor of professional practice in the finance department at Rutgers Business School. She has 25 years of experience as an investment banker and CFO and routinely speaks on issues related to advancing women in business.
Deepa Purushothaman is the cofounder of nFormation, which provides a brave, safe, new space for professional women of color; and an executive fellow at Harvard Business School. She is also the author of The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.
Lisen Stromberg is a leadership and culture transformation strategist, award-winning author, and widely regarded speaker. As CEO of PrismWork, she and her team partner with companies to help them create highly inclusive, high-performing cultures. She is also the author of Work, Pause, Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career.
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