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The Surprising Reason Women Are Held Back in the Workplace

January 17, 2016, 4:30 PM UTC
Photograph by Justin Knight

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for:What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? is written by Melissa Puls, CMO of Progress Software.

When thinking about barriers to female leadership, my mind is immediately flooded by the usual suspects: the patriarchal “boys club,” advancement discrimination, compensation inequality, and striking a successful work-life balance. These barriers are very real and thankfully, strong female executives are chipping away at them each year. I like to think we’re paving the way for the bright minds climbing today’s corporate ranks who will hopefully face fewer of these injustices over time. Which led me to wonder, beyond external barriers, what continues to hold women back? Honestly, it’s ourselves. Women can be our own worst enemy — but it’s a behavior that’s completely preventable.

Use yourself as an example. The last time you had a professional opportunity arise, was your first instinct to immediately jump in and say “Heck yes, sign me up!”, or did you take a long pause to consider how it would impact your family and personal obligations? Be honest now. Too often, women’s bold career aspirations fall victim to nurturing instincts. While men seize these career-boosting turns with gusto, women often talk themselves out of them, labelling them as too risky or burdensome to the family: Who will pick-up the kids? Feed the family? Clean the house? Instead of speaking with their partners about how a great opportunity can be effectively managed for everyone, we martyr ourselves in silence.

See also: How Early Education Can Close the Gender Gap in STEM

I’ve encountered these instincts myself and they’re very powerful. Yet, it’s important for women to remember their self-worth as individuals apart from the family dynamic. Women can be impressive examples for their children and partners by striving for something more and galvanizing them to assist in that quest. In the end, everyone benefits emotionally, and perhaps financially, too.

The traits frequently keeping women from reaching their professional potential are the same traits that make them great leaders: empathy, the ability to multitask, and encouraging greatness in others. Today’s young workers are looking to be part of something larger, to make a difference in the world. They see wrongs and want to eradicate them. This is precisely where female leaders excel. They listen and motivate teams to achieve great things. Women bring a basket of skills to the marketplace that are hard to match, but more importantly, they are perfectly aligned to capitalize on the needs of a contemporary workforce.

Workplace dynamics have shifted considerably in recent years. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined 99 studies on the perceptions of female leaders. They found that while male leaders rated themselves as more effective, other people rated female leaders as more effective. When controlled, for self-ratings, both men and women were deemed equally effective. This supports other research showing how women consistently underestimate their skills and potential, while men overestimate theirs. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to results. Shareholders don’t give a whit whether the leader is wearing a skirt. They care about accountability and results. Deliver both, and no one cares what wrapper it comes in. While women continue to hold themselves back mired in doubt, men are recognizing their potential. They see females as capable leaders, and even as threats — and they should. It’s time women reward themselves by unleashing their potential to the world — unafraid and without apology.