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Lonelier at the Top: Supporting Senior Female Leaders



As a senior female leader, scrabbling your way to the top is only part of the battle. Once you’ve earned your leadership position, you might find yourself lacking a peer community or the support you require. And yes, even scrappy female executives need support. The high stress and high stakes that come with leadership necessitate a network of people and resources to offer support, guidance, and the occasional listening ear (even execs need to vent sometimes!). But these support networks are often absent or less developed than they should be, and that can be problematic.

Why care about supporting senior female leaders?

First of all, women in high-level positions do not usually have the same type of built-in network that their male counterparts have. That’s because the gender gap in leadership is still significant. Women comprise about half of the workforce (and the majority of college graduates), and yet they only hold a quarter of leadership roles. For Fortune 500 companies, that gap is even wider, with only about 8% of CEO positions held by women (and a paltry .4% held by Black women!).

With so few women at the top, leadership can feel isolating and overwhelming. Not only that, many women are reluctant to ask for help, since that can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Female professionals (especially those in leadership positions) feel that they must prove their competence over and over, which can lead to a lot of “toughing it out.”

Additionally, women tend to thrive in social situations with other women. In a recent neurological study conducted at Georgia State University, it was found that same-sex social interactions were more rewarding for females than males. Female participants were more sensitive to oxytocin (a hormone and neurotransmitter), which was produced during same-sex social interactions. In other words: women’s brains are geared to enjoy interactions with other women. When placed in a position of power, it can be difficult to fulfill the natural inclination to mingle and collaborate with other women.

How can we offer females leaders the support they need?

Providing effective, meaningful support to women leaders can be tricky. Networking groups for execs are often male-dominated, as are training programs and forums. Additionally, if senior leaders seek support from their internal work community, they might be faced with ethical dilemmas. They need a safe environment where they can discuss specific employees or company issues without fear of retaliation, blurring manager/employee lines, or sparking gossip.

To gain support that is both meaningful and productive, senior female leaders can turn to a few different areas (ideally, with assistance from their organizations!):

1. Seek Mentors/Advisors/Coaches

Once women reach a certain level in the org chart, they are often called upon to be mentors to other women. But what about finding a mentor of their own? Who can they turn to with questions? Who will listen to their leadership woes and help brainstorm solutions? Who can relate to their struggles and triumphs?

One possible solution is to seek out and connect with peers in other organizations. Networking groups for executives can help women leaders meet one another and establish a relationship with their peers. There are even a handful of networking groups that are specifically geared toward women in executive roles (EWF International or Women Executives, for example).

A mentoring-type relationship could be formal (with regular check-ins and meeting agendas) or informal (discussions over coffee or email exchanges). It could also be established with someone who isn’t a peer, such as a professional coach. All coaches have different methods and approaches (at The Disruptive Element we tap into neuroscience to create long-lasting transformations), so it’s important to find someone who aligns with your objectives and approaches.

2. Pursue Ongoing Development

Personal development should be a priority for all leaders, but the training needs of women leaders are distinct from their male counterparts. That’s because female execs often face a different set of challenges. They are more likely to be questioned or undermined, they face barriers caused by sexism, and they are constantly facing the perception that management is typically a male role. All of these factors can undermine one’s self-confidence, cause excess stress, and make certain situations difficult to navigate.

Seeking specific development can be helpful for coping with some of these extra stressors. Go beyond traditional ‘training’. Training has its value, but what is really needed her is support and development. Think of this as growing from the inside out. That isn’t training! Some development programs exist specifically for women executives; otherwise, it can be a good idea to tap into the personalized expertise of a coach. (To learn about the differences between a trainer and a coach, click HERE).

3. Find Community

As one female executive said in a recent interview, “We don’t want to be stuck in an ivory tower. We want to be part of the community.” It’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of belonging to a community of peers. When you have access to a network of people who can relate to your everyday struggles, understand the hurdles you face, and can offer salient advice or counsel, that network is more valuable than gold. There is power in a collective. Together, you have a stronger voice, access to more resources, and a shared ethos. You can tap into your network for support and guidance, and offer the same in return.

Finding such a network for female executives may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Search online for local groups that fit this description, or join an online group or forum. You might also reach out to your professional connections or your company’s HR department to see if they have any recommendations for such groups. And, if all else fails, form your own network. This network doesn’t have to be formal (although it could be!), and could simply consist of a monthly lunch meeting with a group of women in high-level leadership roles. The format of the group isn’t terribly important — it’s the goal to support and uplift one another that counts.

Even female leaders with abundant grit and determination need a support system. It can be isolating at the top, and the challenges female execs face are unique and plentiful. However, with support, continuing professional development, and a community of peers, women leaders will be better equipped to face the unique challenges of their roles, day after day.

For more information about personalized coaching and support for all female leaders including those at a senior level, check out our In HER Element women's leadership development program.