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It’s lonely when you’re the only woman in the room…

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By Victoria Stokes
19th Feb 2024
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It’s lonely when you’re the only woman in the room…

The reality of being a CEO, senior exec or entrepreneur is that it can be lonely. How can you feel less isolated as a woman entrepreneur or senior executive? We talk to two leaders for their advice

Cast your mind back to the start of your career, to a time when you were in an entry-level role surrounded by colleagues in a similar position. Chances are you had loads of co-workers who could relate to your problems, always on hand to offer their advice and support when you had a bad day at the office.

But now you’re at the top of your game – be it as a CEO, senior-level executive, or self-employed business owner – those relationships probably aren’t as plentiful. The burden and responsibility placed on your shoulders have likely increased tenfold, but the number of people who can relate to you has dwindled.

‘Going it alone’

It’s often been said that it’s lonely at the top. It’s common for CEOs. entrepreneurs and other senior-level executives to feel isolated and like they’re ‘going it alone’.

So, what factors contribute to these feelings? Is it simply the pressure of leading a team or something more than that, and can it be overcome?

For Angela Bergin, senior vice president at Global Payments it’s not just the added responsibility of being at the top, but the need to maintain a good reputation.

For some leaders, the pressure to present an unfailingly professional image may make them less likely to reach out and ask for support when they need it. Unsurprisingly, without the proper support systems, loneliness seeps in.

“As people get more senior, their opinions, how they act, how they treat people, what they say, and what they don’t say, all become amplified,” says Angela, whose leadership was recognised last year when she won the title of ‘Digital & Technology Businesswoman of the Year’ at the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards.

“It’s good to be cognizant of this because that becomes your reputation very quickly. When you’re at the top, you may have a smaller group of people you fully trust.”

Rungs of the ladder

When you’re on the first few rungs of the ladder, there are usually plenty of people who will indulge your gripes about company culture; your worries about the company’s future; and your complaints about pay.

The Gender Balance in Business Survey found that just one in eight CEOs in large enterprises in Ireland in 2021 were women.

But the further you climb the fewer people there are who can really relate to your struggles. There are fewer and fewer people who will understand the unique pressures you face as a leader, whether that’s making layoffs, introducing cost-cutting measures, or keeping a tight eye on the company’s bottom line. Not everyone is going to ‘get it’.

Only woman in the room

Sexism plays a part too. “Let’s be real, I’ve often felt out of place when there were no other women in the room,” Angela says.

While being a leader is hard no matter your gender, there’s no denying that the barriers placed on women in business make it inexplicably harder. According to research conducted in the US, women make up 58.4% of the workforce, but only 35% hold senior leadership roles.

In Ireland, the statistics are even grimmer. The Gender Balance in Business Survey found that just one in eight CEOs in large enterprises in Ireland in 2021 were women. Meanwhile, just three in 10 senior executives were female, compared to seven in 10 males.

While male-dominated structures can make it difficult for female execs to find the support they need, the search for understanding can be similarly tricky for women entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneur support

Samantha Evans climbed to the top of the corporate ladder and now owns and operates Humphreys of Henley, a company that organises luxury travel experiences.

She says being CEO of your own company can be both challenging and isolating, firstly because you wear so many hats from marketing to finances, and secondly because friends and family who don’t own businesses don’t really understand the challenges you’re facing.

“In my corporate role, I worked off-site and at home a lot, but I missed the companionship of work colleagues and all of the benefits gained from sharing ideas, exploring new ways of working and different perspectives,” she says.

“Then, in the first couple of years of being a business owner, I was also working from home and I lived alone so it was very isolating and disheartening when things weren’t going well, which is often the case in the early days of a new business.”

Speaking up

It’s clear that, for many women, career success has an unintended consequence. So if you’re a woman at the top of her game who’s feeling the burden of loneliness, what can you do to overcome it?

“I speak up if I feel I am in some way different from those around me,” Angela says. “I want the people in the room to see different types of people contributing, presenting, and leading.”

Angela says this is how progress happens. “When you speak up, it is one small step closer to being normal, and it gives the next person in the same situation the motivation to do more.”

This approach might mean acknowledging that you are the only woman in the room and being honest about the challenges that come with that, or allowing less senior members of staff small opportunities to step up and lead.

The further you climb the fewer people there are who can really relate to the unique pressures you face as a leader, whether that’s making layoffs, introducing cost-cutting measures, or keeping a tight eye on the company’s bottom line.

One factor that often contributes to loneliness for women at the top is the lack of peers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek them out.

 You can always find people in similar positions, you just might need to look a little further,” says Angela. “That might mean attending office events to get to know people in other functions, or finding the right industry group for you outside of work,” suggests Angela, who joined the IMAGE Business Club last year, a space which offers connections at live events and through popular Group Coaching Circles.

Finding your tribe

Samantha says finding her tribe was a turning point in her leadership journey. “The major game changer for me was discovering the Entrepreneurs Circle, a group that’s focused on learning how to market and run your business.

“Suddenly I was surrounded by fellow small business owners who were experiencing the same ups and downs and, critically, were as determined as I was to make a success of their business,” she notes.

Opening up

Once you’ve found your support group, opening up is key. “Having someone to talk to about your ambitions and your challenges is important,” Angela muses. “But there is only so much your friends and family want to hear about your job.”

This is where she says having a coach can come in handy. “I find using a coach or making use of a coaching skillset within your team very helpful. A coach listens to you with a different perspective, supporting you to get past the noise, and to come up with the best outcome for you,” she notes.

There’s no doubt that it’s lonely at the top. Leadership is a path less trodden, but Angela and Samantha are proof that you can still find companions and support on your journey. 

Nominations are now open for the 2024 IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year Awards

Nominations are now open for the most prestigious awards for women in business in Ireland. If this is your year to shine (and it should be!), find out more about the categories of the IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year awards on this dedicated page or go straight to the Nominations Page to download your Nomination Form and start your application!

Tickets

Tickets are priced at €350 ex VAT.

Business Club members have access to one special rate ticket at €310 ex.VAT and are available to purchase here. Special rate tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis and are limited.

If you would like to purchase by invoice, please email [email protected].

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