Women have made tremendous progress, especially career-wise. Where once women world-over were considered the inferior gender, many women have made their mark in the corporate world. However, despite many successes, women still face numerous challenges. They are often held to different standards, while men in the same positions are rewarded for being assertive and taking risks. Women on the other hand are often left with supporting roles – roles that are associated with gender-biased qualities – than leadership roles.

How Women Rise (2018), by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith, calls out the many bad habits women have that hinder their progress in the corporate world. She points out unconscious learned behaviours that hold women back. She also shows how women can rise from their positions and pursue that coveted leadership position in any career.

The Struggle To Claim One’s Own Accomplishments

Sally Helgesen, with the aim of finding out what behaviours successful professional women saw in their younger counterparts, started interviewing a number of women successful in their respective careers. She learned from these interviews that most younger women struggled with the word ‘I’- a reluctance to take credit for personal achievements.

She learned that many younger female employees in law, accounting, and consulting were consistent, conscientious and had the ability to deliver high-standard work. They worked harder than their male counterparts. Yet, the problem was in drawing attention to their success, and their discomfort with taking credit for their work.

For instance, many would prefer to attribute success to everyone in their team, rather than acknowledge their own hard work to senior colleagues. This problem, Helgesen found, was evident in practically every industry at every level.

Politeness aside, being modest can be harmful to one’s career. In fact, both Hegelsen and Goldsmith have found that men tend to distrust women who downplay their success, viewing them as inauthentic.

Women in management roles with the tendency to be self-deprecating can also risk downplaying the achievements of their team. Any manager that fails to take credit on behalf of the team also fails to acknowledge their hard work, leading to resentment and demoralization among team members.

The Disease To Please

The ‘disease to please’ is a common affliction. While men are not taught to put others before themselves, the need to be thoughtful and pleasant, and to please everyone around is a behaviour that is associated with women. 

How Women Rise (2018) by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith - Book Summary and Review
How Women Rise (2018) by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith – Book Summary and Review

Unfortunately, this conditioning begins in childhood. Girls, at a very young age, are praised when they defer to others. They are rewarded when they are obedient, agreeable and helpful. This expectation is carried out even in workplaces. The biggest example of this is that women are predominantly offered to assist roles in the entry and mid-levels. These roles are made with the idea to help others fulfil their needs. Assertiveness as quality isn’t appreciated in women.

Though being pleasing is a positive quality, it holds women back from achieving success.

This indoctrination of the ‘disease to please, makes women unconsciously fear letting others down. For example, it is often seen that women find it difficult to refuse certain jobs, roles, or tasks, even when they might not be beneficial. The ‘need to please’ attitude robs women of their ability to assert authority, making it tough, especially for women in leadership roles, where asserting authority is often a measure of performance.

Women, in order to be able to climb the corporate ladder of success, and hold successful leadership roles, have to be cured of the disease. They simply need to be more direct and decisive.

The Pitfalls Of Excessive Expertise

Women often feel the need to go above and beyond to be taken seriously in their professions, especially if they are in a male-dominated industry. They often feel the pressure of proving competence in a traditionally male-oriented role. 

What unfortunately happens, is that such women end up putting in more work hours, or displaying excessive expertise, just to prove that they are as good as the boys in the team! Many women end up internalizing this attitude. For example, a software development women professional confessed that when she landed her first position, previous sexist comments influenced her to focus deeply on details. She worked hard to outperform others and prove that she deserved the position. She became the team’s most reliable hard-grafter.

However, as her career progressed, she realised that her need to perfect details in her assignments, wasn’t as valuable a skill as being able to nurture and forge valuable relationships with clients, especially when one is eyeing a leadership position.

Women need to focus on the roles that they aspire to rather than the ones they are currently in. Achieving perfection in just one role makes an individual indispensable. There are high chances that a manager could make an effort to keep an indispensable individual in that particular role, endangering one’s chances of a promotion.

The Tendency To Minimize Oneself

A few years ago, while attending a board meeting of a national women’s group, the author noticed that the men already seated in the room made no effort to make place for the newcomers. As the newcomers kept looking for places to sit, the women in the room moved around and shifted to make more places, and take up less space around the table.

Why did the women, as opposed to the men, try to make space for others?

This tendency of women comes down to the fact that women, unconsciously, have a tendency to minimize themselves in professional environments. They tend to make themselves physically smaller by pressing their arms closer to their bodies, crossing legs, or even keeping belongings closer. Men, on the other hand, spread as far as they can, with arms placed over the adjacent seats, spread out legs and scattered belongings.

This tendency to minimize is evident verbally as well. A Harvard Business School study shows that women are more inclined to use phrases of uncertainty such as, ‘It wouldn’t be correct, but…’ etc. These physical and verbal minimizing behaviours tend to hold women back.

Studies have shown that by drawing limbs inwards or physically shrinking oneself, one’s ability to undermine authority diminishes and is a sign of submissive behaviour, similar to how dogs tuck-in their tails in the presence of another bigger dog.

Additionally, these minimizing behaviours are perceived as signs of a lack of commitment by those in positions of power. Unconsciously, women end up projecting uncommitted, timid images of themselves at work.

How Ruminating Leads To Inaction And Depression

Women also have a classic tendency to ruminate. They regret mistakes and tend to mull over outcomes. They dwell on past events and ponder over how they could have done things differently.

While both, men and women can fixate on negative events, men are better able to move past them. Men deal with such thoughts by usually blaming external factors for perceived failures or by excusing themselves of the responsibility. They direct their regret outward, often expressing it in anger – an emotion they are most comfortable expressing. Women, on the other hand, direct regret inward and blame themselves for mistakes, in the form of rumination.

Excessive rumination has devastating consequences and is known to be detrimental to work. Rumination, if chronic, can lead to depression. Furthermore, it thwarts one’s ability to take action for whatever is causing one to ruminate. It depletes one’s mental energy level, leading to an inability to find solutions to problems.

When it comes to excessive rumination, ‘analysis leads to paralysis’, and women need to learn to let go of the past.

The Need To Be Perfect, Always!

Julie Johnson, an executive professional coach, notices that most of her clients struggle to overcome perfectionism. While striving for perfection is a positive attribute, obsessing over it isn’t. Why? Perfection is a utopian unrealistic goal. When those who strive for it fail to achieve perfection, it can lead to stress, a feeling of disappointment in oneself and eventually, depression.

Johnson also found that perfection is a problem that more commonly is a female issue. Women, from the time they are children, are expected to fit within societal gender norms. In most societies around the world, women are made to believe that they need to be perfect if they have to be of any value. If we think back to how children a rewarded, girls are praised when they are obedient, whereas boys are applauded for their free and daring behaviour. Even the concept of a ‘naughty boy’ is seen as endearing and charming. Girls, on the other hand, get penalised for being naughty.

Girls are taught and are expected to do everything ‘by the book’, avoid making mistakes, and never be aggressive or act out. Unfortunately, this indoctrination of the need to strive for perfection gets deep-rooted within the female at a very young age. As adults, this expectation is seen even in the workplace.

For instance, according to data analysed by executive coach Carlos Marin, male executives tend to get rewarded for behaviour that displays their willingness to take risks, whereas women executives get rewarded for accuracy and precision.

Such stereotypical expectation from women in the workplace keeps them from making even the smallest of mistakes or taking risks. And unfortunately, to get to the top of the corporate ladder, risks are necessary, inevitable even! 

Sadly, women need to leave behind the need for perfection, or else they will build their own glass ceilings, in a bid to strive for it.


If women have to rise in the corporate world and make their mark at the top of the ladder, they need to shake off stereotypes that unconsciously shape their behaviours. They need to be able to openly speak their mind and claim their accomplishments proudly.

They need to eradicate the ‘disease to please’, and at the same time be wary of showing excessive expertise. This will make them indispensable and they could get passed over for promotions.

Women also need to stop physically and verbally minimising themselves and avoid ruminating over mistakes and past events. Finally, women should avoid striving for perfection always. They need to be realistic and take risks where needed.