Skip to main content

Women Leaders Must Overcome Self-Judgment

Ellen Taaffe explains why women leaders must break through the “mirrored door” to advance in the workplace.

Portrait of Ellen Taaffe
Ellen Taaffe directs the Women’s Leadership Program at the Kellogg School of Management. Image: Catherine Heath

By Ellen Taaffe
Winter 2024

Women are completing college and graduate programs, entering the workforce and striving for higher-level positions in greater numbers than ever before. Today 70% of high school valedictorians are women, yet in 2023 only 10% of the Fortune 500 CEOs were women. 

To be sure, navigating workplaces that were built for a different time and a different employee population is a challenge. Becoming a leader when you haven’t seen someone in leadership who looks like you is not easy. And research shows that women are expected to lead the same way men lead, which creates institutional obstacles in some work cultures. 

But my contention is that women face another powerful, often invisible obstacle that we must break through to make it anywhere close to bigger leadership roles. It is not the glass ceiling — it is the mirrored door. 

At some point in their careers, many women encounter this mirrored door phenomenon — the internal place where, when presented with opportunities, we reflect inward and hesitate, seeing ourselves as unworthy or unready to move forward. This self-judgment can cause us to hold back from raising our hands or applying for a new role. And so, despite our hard work and comparable performance, we halt our own growth and get left behind. When we hesitate, awaiting a more perfect time and self, gathering the energy to feel more prepared and certain, we avoid the risk of imagined failure — but we also forget the value we can bring. Meanwhile, the men in our workplaces jump at new opportunities more frequently and with far more ease. 

Clearly, women may be locked out at times by biases and systemic issues, but the metaphor of the mirrored door suggests that we also may be locking ourselves in. Frequently we hold ourselves back, fearing failure, doing what has worked before. And in doing so, we miss seeing that all the growth is on the other side of action. But there is a way to break through and overcome the gendered, sky-high, unrealistic expectations that women have internalized over the course of our lifetimes — expectations that keep us from reaching our full potential. 

In my recent book, The Mirrored Door: Break Through the Hidden Barrier That Locks Successful Women in Place, I explain why the five perils of success — preparing to perfection, eagerly pleasing, fitting the mold, working pedal to the metal, and patiently performing and expecting rewards to follow — get us to a certain level, and then may prevent us from taking the next step in our careers as expectations rise. For example, the perfectionist who relies on hours of preparation can become seen as someone who can’t make a decision or delegate, someone you want on your team but not to lead it. 

When we become more aware of how societal perceptions of women have distorted our self-reflections to the point that they hold us back, we can more consciously and courageously move forward. We learn that courage is the prerequisite to action, and confidence is the outcome. 

When we do take the risk — by asking questions, putting our less-than-perfect ideas forward, speaking up for ourselves and what we want — we strengthen our self-belief, learn from trial and error, and build a brighter future for ourselves and the women of future generations. 

Ellen Connelly Taaffe ’97 MBA, ’12 CERT is a clinical associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management

Share this Northwestern story with your friends via...

Reader Responses

No one has commented on this page yet.

Submit a Response