All Articles Leadership Inspiration The glass ceiling has moved: What women (and their mentors) need to know

The glass ceiling has moved: What women (and their mentors) need to know

Women are often told they need "executive presence," but what does that mean and how helpful is it? Try thinking about "executive mindset" instead, as Dana Theus explains.

6 min read


The glass ceiling has moved: What women (and their mentors) need to know

SmartBrief illustration

Women’s history is changing. In the decades since women entered the white collar workforce, the nature of the glass ceiling barring them from leadership has changed dramatically. 

For one thing, it’s moved up and become more sophisticated. When I first entered the workforce, the glass ceiling hovered just above the heads of tier-one managers, and neither I nor my contemporaries really bothered to aspire to positions as lofty as vice president, much less higher. 

How far we’ve come.

Today’s glass ceiling hovers just beneath the C-suite. Having raised up a couple of levels, it’s left a “broken rung” in the ladder back at that first promotion into management, but at least it’s now much more common to find women populating all levels of leadership. And yet, the glass ceiling still remains an invisible barrier to success, screening out almost 30% of women who might help achieve equality in the executive suite.

Executive presence: A moving target

In my executive coaching practice with senior women leaders working toward a competitive slot in the executive suite or boardroom, they almost always bring me some form of feedback they’ve gotten from their boss or mentor. This leader advises them to work on their “executive presence” in order to ascend to the executive ranks. 

Google tells them it means being authentic, speaking and standing with authority. Believing they do these things, and that some deeper meaning must lurk under this guidance, their question for me as their coach is, “What does executive presence for women really mean?”

Frankly, I’m not sure what other people mean when they give this advice, especially since it’s given to so many women who — to me anyway — appear to be authentic, competent and authoritative.

In my line of work I consider myself a student of executive culture. As such, I realize that definitions evolve and perspectives differ; so I am always on the lookout for a deeper interpretation of “executive presence.”

When I speak with male executives who are giving the women they mentor advice to work on their executive presence, they don’t talk about stance authority. They say the women they want to help move up are too “easily overwhelmed” and “lack confidence.” When pressed, these well-meaning male mentors struggle to articulate what a non-overwhelmed and confident woman would look like, so they default to advising better “executive presence.” 

That’s where I come in, helping decrypt this vague advice to help women find actionable behaviors others will see as “executive.”.

Executive mindset: A path through the glass ceiling

In my work with women struggling to see what this mysterious “presence” they allegedly lack really looks like, I’ve come to believe the missing piece requires us to take on the myth that competence and subject matter expertise qualify anyone (woman or a man) for the executive suite. 

As many have noticed, successful executives aren’t always the smartest people in the room (competence), nor do they know everything about the topic at hand (subject-matter expertise.) But what they do possess are two important qualities that together, form an executive mindset that distinguishes them as effective, high-level leaders:

  1. The ability to take a strategic, cross-functional, “tree tops” view of the business, knowing when to drop down into the weeds and how long to stay there
  2. Displaying a confidence in the business, which sometimes edges into bravado, that motivates and engages employees, investors and stakeholders 

So the issue really is, instead of merely adopting a power pose or speaking loudly, can we start mentoring women to develop strategic vision and build faith in the business with stakeholders?

Of course we can, but we’d be wise to remember that the ways they do it sometimes look a little different than the archetype of the typical, male, successful executives we tend to see in business media. (Think Richard Branson or Steve Jobs versus Ginni Rometty or Mary Barra.) 

A woman’s-eye view through the glass ceiling

One thing women and their mentors should remember when taking on the challenges of navigating past the glass ceiling is that many women come to the two executive mindset issues above with a particular lens. Specifically, women have been acculturated in most corporate cultures in two specific ways they need to work into their authentic leadership style while mastering the executive mindset:

1. Detail orientation

Most women pride themselves on being thorough and correct. They’re often told, with reason, that they must work twice as hard and be twice as good as their male colleagues to get ahead. They take this advice seriously and learn to focus on getting the details right, which works well early in their careers.

However, as they move higher on the corporate ladder, they often struggle to develop a strategic, big picture view because they’re still focused on the details. The solution is to help them learn the leadership skill of flying back and forth between tree tops and the weeds of the business, as well as help them understand what success looks like when navigating the leafy canopy.

2. Learning bravada

Women are used to being talked over in meetings, ignored and not taken seriously early in their careers. They’re also used to cleaning up other people’s messes, at home and even at the highest levels of corporate leadership. As a result, many of them work hard to become confident in themselves, and they have little interest in championing unfounded risks that will have to be cleaned up.

This means that they are practically allergic to overconfidence. They don’t respect it in others and they don’t aspire to it themselves. However, the specific brand of confidence that generates stakeholder support is something they need to master to be effective in the executive suite. The key to mentoring a woman into this kind of healthy overconfidence is to help her understand the purpose of this level of bravada, which is not to deceive but to inspire. 

Women can be highly effective advocating for who and what they believe in. A secret to helping a woman adopt the mindset that brings with it a higher-level executive presence is to help her understand the important role of the executive as advocate, champion and strategic thinker — as someone competent in the weeds when necessary but who does not live there.

Another secret to her success will be to help those she works with see her uniquely feminine approaches to accomplishing these outcomes, comparing her performance to the goal instead of the male role models who’ve gone before her. 


Dana Theus is an executive coach and advocate for gender and racial equity in the workplace. Her recent publications include a comprehensive guide to Women in Leadership that provides women and their mentors a rich resource in navigating the glass ceiling to become powerful leaders. Connect with Theus on LinkedIn.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadershipbusiness transformation and the Network for Executive Women, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.