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How Women are Bursting the Boardroom Bubble

There is a subtle revolution happening in business. Women are bringing skills and strengths in to the boardrooms that are secretly terrifying men.

I recently asked my female clients who identified as being highly successful for their insights into the pressures they face at the top. 

Their stories together with results found in recent studies of successful women reveal unique insights in to their shared personality traits, barriers to success and health risks. But its how they overcome the odds to burst the male boardroom bubble that reflects the unique qualities that men just don't possess in quite the same way.  

Increasingly these women are achieving that all important work-life balance. They have an acute awareness of the health risks associated with prolonged pressure and proactively engage with personal development. Self-awareness, support networks and healthy habits are giving them the edge to go further.  

Lets take a closer look at what women are up against and how they adapt as they climb the ladder to the top. 


The UK governments recent ‘Women on boards 2018’ report revealed that of the 350 listed FTSE companies, 292 do not have a single female sitting in the boardroom and the number with 2 or more in the boardroom is only 5. Tell tale signs as to the stereotypes and barriers women face are evident in the excuses that were given as to why women were so poorly represented in boardrooms.

For your pleasure, bewilderment and horror here are some of the reasons given:

  • “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment”

  • “There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board - the issues covered are extremely complex”

  • “Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board”

  • “Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?”

  • “My other board colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board”

  • “All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up”

  • “We have one woman already on the board, so we are done - it is someone else’s turn”

I was surprised that these stats and comments were less of a surprise to my clients than they were to me. What impressed me the most was how my clients shared a complete optimism for the future. They all recognized the unique challenges that they had faced and all remarked on how it gave women coming up the edge over men.    

“Its not about us and them.”  One client was keen to express.“We all know that the corporate ladder was created by men, held in place by men and the top wrung reserved for men. Blaming them for playing the game that’s in front of them won’t get us anywhere. But we can demonstrate that winning is heavily biased in their favor and insist on change. By more women holding power at the top is the only way we can expect this to happen.” 

The ‘Women on boards’ report and subsequent excuses are evidence enough to demonstrate the continuing barriers that women still face in business. Correcting the balance will take time and as we learn about the attributes of successful women we can teach those skills to other women to emerge as future leaders. This will open up exciting new potentials to how business is done in the future. 

The following is from a client who sits on the board of an international organization. It is testament to the beginning of the tipping point currently taking place.

“Women leaders in business have been uniquely defined by the forces of institutional inequality that men simply haven’t had to endure.

I understand why men have held the majority of power for so long. Competition is everything; mistakes are mercilessly punished so caution drives everything. Change is catatonically slow.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not for the faint hearted. At this level there is no tolerance for incompetence. Both sexes are highly experienced, focused and self-assured. However women who make it to the top have something super impressive about them.

In general we are healthier, more resourceful and more energetic than our male counterparts. We know that the collective value of the female experience in business can only be realised when we take what we have learned and use it to make it easier for all women to progress further than ever.”

So, what can we learn from those women at the top? What are their shared personality traits that we can develop? What are their barriers to success that we can learn to navigate? And what are the associated health risks to those high pressures to mitigate against?


In 2014, 85 women in business holding senior leadership positions of vice-president and above took part in a study conducted by Caliper. The resulting whitepaper entitled ‘The Qualities that Distinguish Women Leaders’ gave valuable insights in to the shared characteristics of the UK’s and US’s most successful businesswomen.


Empathy: Potential to perceive others’ feelings and read social cues. An empathic individual is likely to be perceptive of people’s feelings and capable of reading social cues. Low scorers may misinterpret or be inattentive to others’ needs or feelings.

Aggressiveness: Inclination to push forcefully. People who have high scores in aggressiveness tend to be forceful when defending their ideas or actions. Individuals with low scores would be unlikely to take a firm approach.

Stress-tolerance: Capacity to remain unworried about possible negative consequences. People with high Stress Tolerance tend to be unconcerned about events beyond their control, while those with low scores on this attribute are likely to focus on what might go wrong.

Ego-Strength: Capacity to handle rejection and criticism. Individuals with high scores on Ego-Strength tend to be unconcerned by setbacks. On the other hand, people who score low on this scale may be sensitive to criticism or rejection. 

Assertiveness: Potential to communicate information and ideas in a direct manner. Individuals scoring high on this quality should be willing to communicate their ideas and opinions. People with low Assertiveness scores may be uncomfortable expressing their viewpoints.

Energy: Potential to sustain a high level of activity over extended periods. People who score high on this attribute tend to be active in the workplace, while individuals with low scores might be unenergetic in their work approach.

(Definitions taken from the Caliper Glossary of terms)


As well as the 6 personality traits the Caliper study also identified 5 barriers that caused the highest negative impact on the women.

1. Feelings of guilt for not spending enough time with family because of work.

2. Family responsibilities.

3. Resistance from other current leaders.

4. Having to outperform male leaders to be considered effective. 

5. Lack of support in the household when work is demanding.

Interesting to note that three of the five barriers are related to work-life balance. The pressures of having to juggle family and home-life commitments whilst overcoming discrimination in the workplace often results in women climbing back down the ladder or falling off due to ill health. 

Many of the traits in the study are those shared by both successful males and females however the study went on to conclude: ‘In addition to these “masculine” traits, we also found repeated instances in which Resilience, Energy,and Empathy emerged as drivers of successful leadership and ability to overcome obstacles. This appears to be an added benefit for female leaders in particular because of the potentially stressful and challenging situation they are in as minorities in leadership.

These personality traits allow them to better understand their subordinates and colleagues, bounce back after failures or rejection, and persevere with their efforts for long periods of time. Therefore, not only do these women leaders exhibit traditionally successful leadership attributes but also demonstrate the attributes needed for success on a path full of resistance and difficulties.’

The study wraps up by raising the most salient point:

‘Women leaders should also have an awareness of their personality to understand their natural tendencies and where they must improve and continue to develop in order to be successful. Finally, having an awareness of the challenges likely to be encountered in leadership positions can help women prepare themselves and employ their mental and emotional resources to overcome obstacles and be effective leaders.'

For me the focus on Self-awareness is central to any authentic personal and professional growth. Developing the personality traits of the women you aspire to be like is as much about knowing your limits and understanding when you are struggling as strengthening your emotional, mental and physical resilience. You don’t have to have poor mental health to improve it but you do have to have self-awareness.

When pressures mount women are predisposed to certain long-term effects as the study below shows.


From the study conducted by the University of Texas – Gender, Job Authority and Depression the lead author Dr Tetyana Pudrovska tells us that: 

‘Women with job authority, the ability to hire, fire and influence pay have significantly more symptoms of depression than women without this power. In contrast, men with job authority have fewer symptoms of depression than men without such power.'

Dr. Pudrovska makes the important distinction:

'Women with job authority in our study are advantaged in terms of most characteristics that are strong predictors of positive mental health. These women have more education, higher incomes, more prestigious occupations, and higher levels of job satisfaction and autonomy than women without job authority. Yet, they have worse mental health than lower-status women.'

Why should these symptoms be increased in women rather than in men who hold the same positions? 

'Years of social science research suggest that women in authority positions deal with interpersonal tension, negative social interactions, negative stereotypes, prejudice, social isolation, as well as resistance from subordinates, colleagues and superiors.' Dr. Pudrovska writes. 'Women in authority positions are viewed as lacking the assertiveness and confidence of strong leaders. But when these women display such characteristics, they are judged negatively for being unfeminine. This contributes to chronic stress.'

'Men in positions of authority are consistent with the expected status beliefs, and male leadership is accepted as normative and legitimate. This increases men's power and effectiveness as leaders and diminishes interpersonal conflict.'

Echoing the implications of the Caliper findings Dr Pudrovska highlights 'We need to address gender discrimination, hostility and prejudice against women leaders to reduce the psychological costs and increase the psychological rewards of higher-status jobs for women.'

As much as we are publicly coming to grips with the fact that mental health issues are a shared common experience. To admit it in such high powered positions is still taboo.

“You might as well hand your competitors the knife, close your eyes and turn your back rather than admit you’re struggling mentally to cope.”One of my clients told me.

In parallel to the mental health effects Dr Pudrovska shows in her study the different ways in which prolonged pressure can physically affect men and women differently. 

Men have a tendency to resort to dysfunctional behaviours to cope with stress, such as drinking, smoking, over eating, burning the candle at both ends etc.  Health conditions manifest later in life as a result of these lifestyle behaviours such as diabetes and heart disease. 

Physical problems tend to present themselves a lot quicker for women as their bodies respond to the continuous impact of stress hormones. Women also have slightly different internal drivers to men which further contribute to the impact of stress on the body.


  • Please others

  • Be perfect 

  • Be strong 

  • Try hard 

  • Hurry up

During periods of prolonged pressure these drivers can spark a negative impact upon our internal dialogue (the story we tell ourselves). A pattern emerges in our psychology that begins a downward spiral. Negative thoughts become our limiting beliefs creating unwanted feelings resulting in dysfunctional behaviours.

Examples of this pattern could be:

Negative thoughts: “I messed up”, “Why do I keep messing up?”, “No one thinks I can do this and they are right.”, “I’m going crazy.”, “Whats wrong with me?”

Limiting beliefs: I don’t deserve success. I am stupid. I will never become anything. I am a failure. 

Unwanted feelings: Anxiety, shame, anger

Dysfunctional behaviours: Avoiding responsibilities. Taking more time off sick. Reduced confidence. Over eating. Under eating. Drinking too much. Staying awake all night. 


A continuation of this downward spiral could lead to mental health issues such as depression, chronic anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder.

These psychological pressures also take their toll physically. The prolonging effects of stress hormones within the body increase the likelihood of such conditions as burnout, adrenal fatigue and high blood pressure. 


Women skate on thin ice when it comes to burnout, chronic stress and emotional exhaustion. 

Symptoms include:

Chronic fatigue. 


Loss of appetite. 


Frequent illness 

Forgetfulness or impaired concentration (brain fog). 

Mood swings - Anger, anxiety and depression. 


As working environments adapt and respond to the forces of equality we have learnt so much about the unique personalities of women at the top. The struggles they faced and the strengths they have can be used to inspire and define our own personal and professional growth.

Successful women are more likely to proactively seek support before mental and physical health issues negatively impact their lives in ways men still struggle to. This together with their wholesome approach to health and wellbeing has women poised to fill positions at all levels in a way that can radically create an energized and vibrant workforce. 

We can all take a feather from the wings of those women that flew to the top and proactively embrace responsibility for our own health and personal development. At the centre of this change is self-awareness and personal responsibility. Once you’ve made that link between your own experience of stress and the negative impact it can make on the quality of your life – then you have become self-aware. From then on it becomes a choice to seek help or weather the storm.

Its clearer than ever how high achieving women are doing it. No one is saying it is easy but it can be a better journey. Take control, engage with current supports and find new ones to help you improve your mental, physical and emotional health.  Develop positive routines and a commitment to personal development. There are therapists, coaches, mentors, trainers, courses, spas, holidays, retreats etc.. all of which can be cogs in your life that help you get wherever you need to get to. No one will do it for you so perhaps now it’s time to embrace your self-awareness and ask the question “How will I do it?”


Who is:

Graham Barrone is a psychotherapist that has been working with and supporting clients for the past 14 years to engage with tools, tips and techniques that bring about long-term control over anxiety based disorders. He works mostly online these days and can be found at

“Stop by and say “Hi”. Lets chat about what’s going on for you and how I can be part of your continued progress. Coaching you back on the path to clarity, confidence and control.”




Heres a recap of some of the lists mentioned in this article:



High Anxiety

Panic attacks




Giving a presentation.

Making a mistake. 

Negative thoughts: 

“I messed up”

“Why do I keep messing up?”

“No one thinks I can do this and they are right.”

“I’m going crazy.”

“Whats wrong with me?”

Limiting beliefs: 

I don’t deserve success.

I am stupid.

I will never become anything.

I am a failure. 

Unwanted feelings: 




Dysfunctional behaviours: 

Avoiding responsibilities.

Taking more time off sick.

Reduced confidence.

Over eating.

Under eating.

Drinking too much.

Staying awake all night.    



Adrenal fatigue


Chronic fatigue


Loss of appetite


Frequent illness 

Forgetfulness or impaired concentration (brain fog) 

Mood swings - Anger, anxiety and depression


Please others 

Be perfect

Be strong

Try hard

Hurry up




Stress- tolerance





Feelings of guilt for not spending enough time with family because of work.

Family responsibilities.

Resistance from other current leaders.

Having to outperform male leaders to be considered effective. 

Lack of support in the household when work is demanding.


Interpersonal tension

Negative social interactions

Negative stereotypes


Social isolation

Resistance from subordinates, colleagues and superiors



Women on Boards: Progress Report 2018 – Department for business, energy and industrial strategy.

go to

Women Leaders Research Paper – Caliper Research & Development Department

Go to

or download

Women Leaders Research Paper (2014) (PDF)

The Qualities That Distinguish Women Leaders - Caliper Corporation

Go to

or download

The Qualities That Distinguish Women Leaders (PDF)

Gender, Job Authority, and Depression - Tetyana Pudrovska and Amelia Karraker

Go to

For Women, Job Authority Adds to Depression Symptoms UTNews, University of Texas – Rachel Griess

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

How women are Bursting the Boardroom Bubble

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