top of page

Problems of presence for female leaders

By Pauline Holland, Principal Consultant at Taylor Clarke and Co Chair at ODN Europe

“An essential dynamic of leadership is being seen …”

(David Whyte, in Half a Shade Braver: The Foundations of Conversational Leadership)

If 'being seen', as the poet David Whyte asserts, is an essential dynamic of leadership then your ‘presence’ as a leader is concerned with how you are seen. Many agree that the notion of presence is an elusive concept, but make no mistake, as a leader you are being critiqued on whether or not you have ‘it’.

In this blog, I want to explore ‘presence’, why your presence matters, particularly as a female leader, and what you can do to manage your presence to help you achieve the outcomes you desire.

Why does your presence matter, especially for female leaders?

Presence matters for leaders, both male and female but there are, without question, particular challenges for women in establishing the kind of presence that creates impact. When it comes to women, so much emphasis and scrutiny is placed on how women look and how women dress. Some of you will recall the recent public outcry in the UK regarding one newspaper’s reporting on the meeting of the Devolved Nations’ leaders with the Prime Minister, Theresa May, on the BREXIT discussions. The Scottish Sun’s headline read as follows:

“Nicola Sturgeon out-shoes Theresa May with crocodile-skin stilettos for crunch Downing St meeting”.

Reactions to this headline created a twitter storm leading to the creation of the hashtag - #wearemorethanshoes! The story, in a rather infuriating way, highlights the challenge for women to be taken seriously in the media and in many organisations. So when it comes to leadership presence, women clearly face additional hurdles.

What is presence?

Presence, as a leadership attribute, is about the way you relate to and connect with others. It’s about how you show up, the way you hold and conduct yourself, the way you speak and the way you listen. Your presence manifests itself in the impressions you create and impact you have on those around you, e.g. whether people listen to what you have to say or instead talk over you. It’s about how you are seen.

Your presence is not a constant. It is different in different situations because it is co-created in your relationships; it is not something you create in isolation from others. Think about the different ways you find yourself showing up at work. For example, you may recall occasions when you have struggled to be heard, found it difficult to express your views about issues that mattered to you. Consequently, you began to withdraw a little or a lot and become less visible. Perhaps, there were other times when you wished, in hindsight, that you had been quieter, made space for others or listened more. Over extending yourself into the conversations, creating too much presence, if you like, can be equally unhelpful, particularly if you’re a woman. It helps to think about what goes on in these different scenarios that is shaping your presence in that particular situation.

Striking the right balance for women is a tricky issue as a recent radio feature on the American NPR show demonstrates. In its ‘Hidden Brain’ series, NPR’s Social Science Correspondent, Shankar Vendantam, discusses the double bind that many women find themselves caught in, that is having “to choose between being seen as likeable but incompetent, or competent but cold”. This, Vendantam claims, explains the ‘Dearth of Women in Top Leadership Positions’. A double bind by its very nature is difficult to resolve, but acknowledging that it exists and that you may be operating from within it is a good place to start.

What can we do to create more of the presence we intend?

Social Psychologist, Amy Cuddy, advises women to ‘stop worrying about the impression we’re making on others and instead adjust the impression we’ve been making on ourselves’. In her popular Ted Talk – Your Body Language Shapes Who You are – she talks about ‘non-verbal expressions of power and dominance’ and presents her research findings which conclude that it is your body that ultimately shapes your presence. The impression you are making on yourself is influenced by the way you hold yourself. Your body registers the way you genuinely feel about yourself which, in turn, determines how you think about yourself and how you project yourself in to the world. She encourages women to experiment with ‘power poses’ to communicate with power to greater effect. This is one of a number of strategies you can experiment with to develop your presence.

I’ve set out four other strategies that I use in my coaching and leadership development work with women (and men) to help them develop greater presence.

1. Ask for feedback – other people are a great source of information about your presence. Select 4-6 people from across your network and ask them to offer you words or phrases regarding how they would describe your presence. Use that feedback to help you decide what you want to change or develop about your presence. It is often small changes that can make the difference.

2. Learn to Improvise – fear of failure or vulnerability can prevent you building the presence you seek e.g. you may choose to be silent rather than risk rejection or conflict by speaking up. Improvisation techniques encourages you to focus fully in the moment you are in and to respond with greater spontaneity. By listening intently to the conversation, you intervene without overthinking what you are saying or doing. Notice how others respond, and continue to adapt yourself to what is unfolding in the conversation.

3. Listen to your body - your body is an untapped source of knowledge and wisdom that can help you make greater sense of what you are experiencing. By paying closer attention to your feelings and the sensations in your body, you can discover what it is about the conversations you’re having or not having, or the roles that we find yourself taking up or avoiding, that bothers you, or really matters to you. For more on this topic see Pete Hamill or Dr Jane Peterson’s work, among others, on Embodied Leadership.

4. Consider your use of language and its relationship with power - In order to not appear too assertive or confident for fear of being seen as ‘cold’ – the double bind - many women use apologetic or hesitant tones when speaking e.g. “I’m not an expert on this matter, but …” or “I’m just wondering if …”. It can of course be helpful to present your views in less dogmatic ways to encourage other to express their own perspective. But it may also be beneficial to assert your view without self-questioning words or phrases.

If you’re interested in exploring your presence as a female leader, we hold One Day Workshops - Presence & Impact in Glasgow. You can find out more and book your place here:

Or contact us on


bottom of page