How Can Women Make It into the Boardroom Without Leaving Their Boundaries at the Door?

Men still hold more senior leadership roles than women across all industries. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023, only about 32.2% of directors, vice presidents, and C-suite positions around the world are held by women. So, what does this mean for us women aiming for these roles? We have to navigate a system that favours men, which naturally traps us in the cycle of people pleasing.

In other words, we’ll go above and beyond for those around us, even if it means sacrificing our own well-being or priorities. We’ll answer that work call on a weekend, put in overtime, and even play barista for our colleagues. We feel like we have to constantly prove ourselves.

And if we don’t meet every request or demand, it can make it harder to accept that we truly belong in those leadership circles, setting us back in our careers.

How do you know you’re a people pleaser at work?

If you’re a people pleaser, you hate disappointing and upsetting anyone.

You might find yourself saying things like:

  • “Sure, I can do that for you during lunch time.”
  • “No worries, I’ll stop what I’m doing to help you out.”
  • “I’ll just handle it myself, it’s easier that way.”
  • “Oh, it wasn’t a big deal.” (Even though it was, in fact, a big deal!)

These people-pleasing tendencies come at a very high cost. If you can’t say “no” to things, you will almost always end up with too much on your plate. You need to pay attention to your own needs and emotional well-being in order to maintain a healthy inner life.

People pleasing affects women more than men – why?

According to a survey by YouGov, women are more likely than men to have trouble setting boundaries with others – with 43% of women struggling compared to 32% of men. Also, almost half of women (46%) feel responsible for others’ feelings, while this is true for only 35% of men. Among those who identify as people-pleasers, 39% said it has made their life more challenging, with women (47%) feeling the impact more than men (26%).

From a young age, we women have been taught to be nice, agreeable, and of service to others. We grew up thinking we need to constantly produce and overachieve to be considered “worthy”. This belief is then reinforced in the workplace, where the stakes feel even higher to demonstrate our value.

We’re constantly striving to be everything to everyone – someone they can always count on, just so they’ll trust and depend on us. The problem is, it’s impossible to please everyone all the time. Because of this type of behaviour, we bring unnecessary stress on ourselves and harm our own professional and personal growth.

The impact of people pleasing on effective leadership

As a leader, of course you want to be seen as supportive to your team. However, sometimes, there’s a difference between your intentions and how your actions are interpreted. If you are too accommodating and always avoid criticism, your team might feel unsure about where they stand, instead of feeling supported.

A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that 44% of managers find giving feedback stressful or difficult. As a result, 21% admit they avoid giving negative feedback altogether. Having uncomfortable conversations isn’t always easy, but they’re necessary. When you don’t have these conversations, it can create problems in the workplace.

For one thing, if you’re not giving your team constructive criticism, they may not know where they need to improve. And without clear feedback, your team’s performance and overall business outcomes suffer.

As hard as it might be, you need to find the right balance between being compassionate and being honest. The best way to do that is establish and enforce clear, reasonable boundaries. If you don’t, you risk undermining your credibility and authority as a leader.

How can you start setting boundaries effectively?

As women, we need to recognise our own worth, set boundaries, and understand that it’s not selfish to do so. Early in my career, I spent so much time trying to make others happy. I remember always agreeing to everything and never wanting to ruffle any feathers – partly because I was afraid people wouldn’t like me. That mindset nearly burned me out a few times.

Thankfully, though, I had a great mentor who taught me that focusing on my priorities and learning to say “no” can make me more powerful. Despite the unfair external pressures women have to bear in male-dominated workplaces, it is ultimately on us to get comfortable setting our own boundaries.

Here are a few ways how:

  1. Start by acknowledging that you have every right to set boundaries.
  2. Decide what you’re willing to tolerate and what crosses the line for you. When do you feel taken advantage of?
  3. Communicate your boundaries and needs clearly to colleagues and be ready to say “no” if they cross them.
  4. Expect different reactions. Understand that not everyone may see things your way but hold your position while remaining open to finding a middle ground.
  5. As James Madison University’s Counseling Center suggests, when someone asks you for a favour, stall so you give yourself enough time to consider it. This allows you to assess whether you can realistically commit to helping them.
  6. Most importantly, ensure that what you are saying “yes” to and what you’re focusing on aligns with the strategic goals of your division and the broader objectives of the business

The bottom line

There’s no denying that as women, we do deal with unfair pressures in male-dominated workplaces, but at the same time, it’s on us to learn to set boundaries. If we don’t, we risk sacrificing our own well-being and priorities, as well as our team’s performance, which can harm our careers in the long run.

A great leader understands how important it is to be available while also prioritising what’s most important to them and the business. This means setting boundaries around your time and energy. If you try to be friends with everyone, it might also prevent you from taking risks and could cause you to blend into the background rather than making a meaningful impact.

At the end of the day, saying “no” to one thing allows you to say yes to something else that is much more significant.