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Internal and External Barriers to Women in Leadership

Internal and External Barriers to Women in Leadership

Chapter Leadership Brief 9.23.2022

By Erica Joy West
Co-Vice Chair Communications Committee, Transformational Coach, and Consultant

At the start of the pandemic, like many professional women, I left the workforce. At the time, I was a full-time caretaker for an elderly family. Although I’m not a parent, caretaking is caretaking, just replace online classrooms with telehealth appointments and everything else is pretty much the same-- including the days when ice cream for dinner is good enough.  Caretaking was a second full-time job, so taking a break from fundraising seemed like the right decision.

In those tough times, I reprised my clinical background in mental health and started a coaching business to help women and girls navigate their emotional health and the uncertain future of their professional development.  Over the past couple of years, I noticed a pattern among the professional women that I coach. An alarming 90% of them cited their greatest challenge to advancement as a lack of confidence. Jaw drop.

When I spoke to these women it was clear that they were smart, engaging, and insightful with innovative ideas to solve serious social issues in desperate need of solving. From the outside looking in, no one would describe them as lacking confidence.  Yet these women often underestimated their abilities and felt they needed more experience before they would take a chance in leveling up their careers. And this is not exclusive to the nonprofit sector. The 2020 KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report noted that 75% of female executives experience Imposter Syndrome. 

This does not negate the very real systemic barriers for women in nonprofit leadership, but it does speak to how many women view themselves. As women, we are very visible in the nonprofit world, yet there is a big hill to climb when it comes to our presence in leadership.

Women’s self-confidence impacts the sector and the systemic barriers and dysfunction within nonprofits can greatly impact women’s confidence. The environment does matter and can have implications on our confidence, no matter how many superwoman leadership webinars we take.

Here are two things you can do today to create change within yourself and the sector to shift the leadership gap.

Find Your Tribe

I have a group of professional female colleagues that I call my “Board of Directors.” We give each other career advice, share ideas, make referrals and networking introductions, and provide emotional support when times are hard. A strong network of women that you can trust is essential to career development. We often don’t prioritize this enough, because we are stuck at our computers working late making such everything is perfect before we sign off for the day. Close the laptop. Go out and find a tribe of professional women that you vibe with-- women of diverse ages, backgrounds, and professional experience.

Build Self-Awareness

Our thoughts and emotions are like a secret language and once you learn it, it can become your greatest ally. Understanding your own thoughts and emotions can help you combat fear and other emotions that are crushing your confidence and paralyzing you from moving forward. I keep a journal on my iPhone notepad. I write down any time I am “triggered”. If an emotion pops up that is disrupting my peace, productivity, and connection with others, I write it down----thought, emotion, and behavior (what I did). Whenever I am self-doubting or questioning my decisions, this can be a powerful tool for factual self-reflection to put things back in perspective.  

75% of United States nonprofit leaders are planning to leave their positions in the next 5-10 years.  You are ready for this.

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