In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg popularized the idea that women needed to ‘lean in’ to leadership roles. However, research suggests that women may be pushed out rather than opting out of leadership and that women may not be treated as full members of leadership groups even after being more qualified than men. The reasons why women don’t ‘lean in’ are complex and rarely seem to be driven just by women’s lack of interest in leadership roles.

When we look at the numbers of women in leadership roles, the gender balance has not been reached, and it’s clear that barriers exist – despite all the research that indicates women have leadership ability, rhetoric about gender targets and quotas, and the research data indicating the positive financial impact women in leadership roles and gender-balanced boards create.

Women do not refrain from ‘leaning in’ to leadership roles simply because they lack the intention to do so.

Women continue to face numerous barriers to strategic decision-making and leadership roles in general, with women working in majority-male domains encountering greater obstacles than women in gender-balanced domains, including: not being encouraged to express their views with confidence in strategic meetings; having their potential contributions discounted; not being empowered to contribute to strategic decision; continuing stigmatisation related to caring responsibilities and less flexibility around shifting work hours to accommodate other commitments than men in similar high-power positions; discrimination and negative gender stereotypes, including the ‘double bind’ perceptions that women who seek leadership roles are too assertive and lack warmth; and a lack of strong female role models and mentors.

Women often have less influence in groups, and generally have greater challenges exerting influence than men. Women are perceived as less influential on a team when they possess task expertise. And women are more likely to have lower power in majority-male task groups compared to gender-balanced task groups. Women’s perceptions of their own identity and performance are negatively shaped by these obstacles and stereotypes, especially in male-dominated domains, which surfaces as a further barrier. Women who are a ‘token female’ in a leadership group have more negative expectations of working with their group compared to women who aren’t a minority.

Recent research identifies unbalanced gender compositions of leadership committees as a real barrier to women’s participation in strategic decision-making**. Women perceive their participation in majority-male leadership groups or committees will result in their lower power in the group, compared to gender-balanced or majority-female leadership groups, which limits them applying to such groups or committees**.

Women perceive their participation in majority-male leadership groups will result in their lower power in the group, compared to gender-balanced or majority-female leadership groups.**

This research also indicated that directly manipulating a woman’s sense of power in a majority-male leadership group affected their desires and intentions to pursue the opportunity, suggesting that women are only less likely than men to apply to a leadership group if they perceive they will have lower power – which was more likely to occur in majority-male domains**. This conflicts with the popular perspective that women refrain from ‘leaning in’ to leadership roles simply because they lack the intention to do so, compared to men**.

Power, or a sense of power, refers to ‘social power’ – which can be defined as having control over favourable resources (eg information, money or decision-making), and related to having such power over people in a group, in this case control over the decision-making of the group. In this context women must perceive some power over individuals in a group in order to also perceive they will have the power to lead effectively**. Power is referenced here in the context of positive power/influence (or ‘power with’, rather than ‘power over’) of an individual within a decision-making group. Sense of power can be both a behavioural and a psychological state, in that it is both a real and perceived capacity to influence others.

We need gender-balanced or majority-female contributions to overcome barriers to women’s participation in decision-making.

There is no doubt that it is essential that women be brought into the strategic decision-making process (via committees, boards, as well as expert advisors and stakeholders) as equally represented or majority contributors. In order to successfully navigate existing barriers to achieve this, it’s important to amplify women’s perceived and real sense of power in majority-male leadership groups or committees that are responsible for strategic decision-making. And it’s essential that organisations with majority-male leadership groups make efforts to create an environment that increases women’s sense of power – via listening, supporting ideas and contributions, valuing diverse perspectives and lived experiences, and building an equality environment that surpasses the barriers that continue to exist for women. Specific enablers include:

  • To overcome the barrier of women’s perception of lower power in majority-male leadership groups, compared to gender-balanced or majority-female leadership groups, and encourage women to apply to leadership committees, ideally ensure that women are represented equally or as a majority in these groups. This can appear difficult to achieve if the gender composition of an organisation (and it’s leadership) is unbalanced. A great way to move to this quickly is to take a 40/40/20 approach to all leadership committees/boards – with at least 40% women, at least 40% men, and 20% either gender. This will break down a range of gender barriers for women in decision-making and improve decision outcomes through enhanced diversity. I have seen this embraced and working effectively in numerous fora.
  • An effective way to include more women in decision making where there are fewer women in senior roles is by inviting women as additional members of leadership committees/boards, outside their specific role. This opportunity is often given to more junior women, which then affords them a significant leadership development opportunity. This could be aligned with the 40/40/20 approach. I have also seen this approach embraced and working effectively in numerous fora.
  • Significant consultation, analysis and influence goes into the strategic decision-making process prior to the actual decision via committees that undertake the work that informs the decision; expert advice; stakeholder consultation; and governance processes. Invite women to participate in these processes, and where possible in gender-balanced or majority-female groups. I have seen this approach purposefully undertaken and work effectively in some instances, but there is much more opportunity for this to become ‘the new normal’.
  • Share positive stories of women’s influence within leadership groups in your organisation – this may increase other women’s interest in becoming a member of a majority-male leadership committee. This occurs at many levels in organisations, across industry and in the public sphere, but needs to be supported by other enablers to ensure that once women do step forward into majority-male leadership groups, they are able to contribute equally.

Effective ways for women to build their own confidence as leaders include understanding their own values, leadership purpose & power sources, and strengthening their communication and influence skills.

  • Build a culture of diversity and equality in leadership groups that will increase women’s sense of power, through embedding processes that specifically seek diverse perspectives and lived experiences, invite and consider contributions in a equitable way, recognise and deal with discrimination and negative gender stereotypes, and continue to support flexibility for all members regardless of gender. I have observed elements of this approach being incorporated into leadership groups, with varying impact depending on the level of accountability the leadership group holds itself to. There are so many opportunities for experimentation by organisations to discover what works best for them.
  • To increase women’s perceived and real sense of power, particularly female leaders who haven’t yet reached senior levels, there are a number of valuable enablers:
    • Building women’s confidence as a leader: through helping them understand their own values and leadership purpose, and strengthen their communication and influence skills.
    • Help women understand their power sources – their personal power, expert knowledge, experience, unique relationships – and how to amplify this and use it to create influence. I have experienced first-hand and observed the strong impact both these enablers can have on women’s perceived and real sense of power and ability to influence outcomes, manage negative gender stereotypes, and intention to step into more challenging leadership roles, including in majority-male environments and leadership groups.


** Goodwin RD, Dodson SJ, Chen JM and Diekmann KA (2020), ‘Gender, Sense of Power and Desire to Lead: Why Women Don’t “Lean In” to Apply to Leadership Groups That Are Majority-Male’, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol 44(4), 468-487.

Aya Leadership is committed to changing the status quo for women as leaders by uplifting and empowering more women into leadership roles. We nurture enduring leadership that has impact, generates growth and creates new realities, through providing education, resources and coaching to empower women to be consistent, confident and courageous leaders in their life and business.