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Breaking Through the Other Glass Ceiling – Your Ego!


A recent McKinsey report quoted in the Wall Street Journal states that only 11 chief executives of Fortune 500 companies are women, down from a peak of 15 in 2010. Likewise, in her TED talk (see video below) Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg enumerates the woeful lack of women in top positions around the globe. Sandberg places some of the responsibility for this on women themselves, rather than on external forces such as sexism. She says, “Women systemically underestimate their own abilities.”

I agree. As an executive coach to top-level women in corporate America, I see first-hand highly intelligent and competent female leaders sabotaging themselves by not stepping into their power.

It pains me to hear my women clients tell me how exhausted they are from banging their heads against the executive suite wall. Often the only woman in the room, they claim they don’t feel heard, don’t feel their opinion is taken seriously, or worse, ignored. One client recently lamented, “I feel like I was invited to the club, but no one told me what to wear, how to behave, or what the secret password is.”

What many of these women don’t see is how their anxieties create behaviors that bring about exactly what they fear most. I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the system that need to be fixed. But I do know that by changing our own behaviors and reactions we can have a powerful impact on transforming the system.

Here are three of the most common challenges I see women needing to overcome when working in a male-dominated workplace:

Challenge # 1

“I don’t feel heard, they don’t value my opinion.”

The underlying egosystem issue:

Fear that what we say is wrong or not going to be taken seriously can cause women to communicate in a way that disempowers them. Too often we find ourselves apologizing before and after our statements. I have heard clients say, “I may not know what I am talking about here, but…” This statement sets you up to not be taken seriously from the start.


Take the risk to be bold, even if you’re wrong. Speak more directly and in bullets without the pre- and post-amble, which discredits everything between. Being straightforward garners respect.

Challenge # 2

“I have to be as tough as they are, or they won’t take me seriously.”

The underlying egosystem issue:

I’m afraid if I’m vulnerable and say what I really feel in a meeting they’ll think I’m weak and unprofessional and my chances for advancement will be shot.


Sorry to break the news, but we are women. We have intuitive hunches and get emotional about things. These are not “inferior” qualities. These are gifts that can actually help us to be more effective if used with integrity. I have seen women let their guard down and say what they really felt in a meeting and change the entire energy of the room, all thanks to their vulnerability.

Caveat: 90% of my clients are men, and I remind them that having intuitive hunches and getting emotional about things isn’t just a feminine trait. By bringing forth these attributes, which are more typically assigned to the “feminine,” they can be better leaders.

Challenge #3

They are undermining me. They want to sabotage me. I can never get ahead here.”

The underlying egosystem issue:

I’m afraid to be fully in my power, and rather than having the courage to step into the ring and go toe-to-toe, I will play the victim and blame others.


I constantly hear women say how they feel excluded, undermined, sabotaged, neglected and passed over, but blaming the system won’t change that. In most cases these women are contributing to their own reality by their unexamined beliefs/interpretations.

I coach a lot of men and I can tell you they really do want to hear what we as women think and feel, and they would be hurt if they knew we often feel undermined by them. Most of the men we work with are in fact not out to get us, but want to support our success. They just may not know how.

The key is to be honest about what is going on inside, instead of holding it in and venting about it elsewhere. Be willing to point out where you feel excluded or uninvited, in a direct, non-threatening, non-victim way. Trust your analysis and your intuition and speak from there.

We interpret our world through our filters and beliefs. If we can believe that others really do want us to succeed and are there to support us, if we can trust that ultimately we have something valuable and important to contribute, and if we can change our own behaviors in alignment with those beliefs to break through the glass ceilieng of our ego, we can make a tremendous impact for ourselves and others.

How have you been holding yourself back from stepping into your own power? We would love to hear your comments and experiences.

TED talk from Sheryl Sandberg.

3 thoughts on “Breaking Through the Other Glass Ceiling – Your Ego!

  1. Hi Laura,

    Few years ago I was working as a manager in an institution full of men. One of my bosses where extremely machista and I really felt very bad. I almost can tick all the items in your list as my own experience. Having a boss that is trying to make fun of you is not really nice. These sort of men should never go to the top. I wanted to have some sort of help but at that time I didn’t have anywhere to go. Thank God I am working on my own now. But I must recognize that in Venezuela and Spain, there are a lot of machistas out there, not all of the, but it seems they are the majority. It is like they are trying to make a fence around you, so you can’t go any further. It is really a jungle out there, mainly when you go to the top, as they do. Sure I felt bad and consequently acted as they were expecting me to act. It is a pity I didn’t have a coach by that time. Gabriela

  2. Laurel O'Sullivan


    I was really struck by this post. You reminded me that as I’ve progressed through my career, its not so much that “what” I’ve had to contribute has changed, its that I’ve let go of my fears and as a result HOW i contribute has changed enormously. I’m direct and not afraid to ask questions—even if I don’t know the answers. As a lawyer, and especially in my 20’s, I thought I could never ask a question I didn’t know the answer to. Where was LAL then? Thanks for helping me recognize my own growth.


  3. Happy Full Moon Laura…

    I am so glad you are putting this issue out there…:)

    A few comments and shared stories – experiences…

    I was offered an extremely attractive job – with a very influential and large international agency – when I was in my early 30s…The position was developed specifically for me – to draw on my environmental law, science and management background and experience…I was quite excited about the opportunity..Since I was working – and getting ready for my wedding the start date was set 8 weeks after the offer….A month later – I discovered that I was pregnant (6weeks) and when I had a scheduled call with them to prep for the move and assignment – I mentioned this but also was very clear that I was extremely healthy and had a plan of how I would manage the work etc…There was silence…the person told me to wait a minute – she came back about exactly one minute later – and said that they had decided to withdraw the offer….I guess I had a choice at the time to sue (I would have won) but I am not very litigious and did not want that in my life – not to mention what one “wins” the job…I ended up having to take a much less prestigious job – that was really just a place holder – and after that experience decided Not to tell them i was pregnant – I was hired when i was about 2.5 months along…. and got bigger and bigger (gained 65 pounds and I am only 5 foot 4 inches:)….I was handling some of the firms most important environmental cases – but did not want to tell the partners I was pregnant because I could not afford to be fired again….even though unlikely – there was a real past experience there….I worked right up until the day before I delivered my son ..

    Many years later- I have held many leadership positions – where I was the lead staff – the CEO – the Ex Dir etc – working here in the US and Internationally – I was able to accomplish a lot and worked with great people and was able to promote women and always had a very diverse staff, and I had some wonderful working relationships with men on my board and staff and partners…some of my most memorable and cherished memories of being supported in my work – and working with others are because of the great men involved…However – I did hear comments from other people men and women alike – like “We did not want a woman to get this position because we believe a woman will not command as mush respect”, “You better learn how women have to get things done around here” and had to deal with a almost “demonic” short lived chair of a board that was open and even proud to state that he was a mysogynist (sp?) and that he was going to “tame me”…(in that case the other board members stepped up and forced him out….:) (Did you guess most of these comments were made when I was working in Texas) Sorry to any Texas residents out there – (by the way it happens to be one of my most favorite states and I am fiercely loyal to my many friends there….

    I also am very aware that I spend a lot of time helping others succeed – when I could be doing more to put my own foot forward – and that many women that I work with feel that they too would say that they spend more time helping others – when they want and desire to do more for themselves … etc etc – so I certainly see – and agree that yes – we women (or many of us anyway – are not always our own best advocates as far as advancing in a traditional career…which is the point of the article…..

    I have found that there can be uneccesary impediments – that arise for women when it comes to career path …but that with a willpower, motivation and luck – they can be overcome on many occasions – But not all…..

    Ultimately though – in the big scheme of things – sometimes not getting the job – that promotion – that raise – may become such a small thing by the end of one’s time here on Earth – that it is not even remembered….

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