Research Says: Break The Rules That Hold Women in Leadership Back

Study: Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power (Jill Flynn, kathryn Heath, Mary Davis Holts. Flynn Heath Holt Leadership 2011)

Finding: Women need to change their mindsets in at least 6 key areas in order to move forward in their leadership roles.

Note about The Woman Effect Research Index: This study was performed by researchers not affiliated with InPower Women. Our Research Index includes all relevant research to the subject of women, business and power. We do not influence how the research was conducted or reported by the researchers. In our abstracts, we focus on pulling out the most actionable advice for individual women. To suggest additional research we should index, or discuss our choice of abstract focus, please contact us

InPower Insight: Women can do more to advance themselves in business by challenging the status quo – not the one designed by men, but the ones they accept for themselves.


It seems that the old adage, “rules were made to be broken” has some weight, particularly when discussing women in leadership and the rules that hold them back.

Researchers Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt have found that “women are held back by an adherence to work strategies that are doomed to failure”. According to data gathered from 1, 700 executives in Fortune 1000 companies (some executives being women), only 17 percent of senior management positions are occupied by women. This percentage has not changed for more than a decade and is not expected to double for another ten. Flynn argues that even though corporations have improved on implementing women- friendly policies, women have to do more to “drive their careers” and not just their careers happen to them.

Flynn, Heath and Holt are the authors of the book that this research is based on (Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power). It explain six mindsets that women need to change:

  1. Focusing on others rather than making oneself a top priority.
  2. Seeking approval rather than “proceeding until apprehended”.
  3. Being modest rather than “projecting personal power”.
  4. Working harder instead of ” being politically savvy”.
  5. Playing it safe rather than “playing to win”.
  6. Believing it’s all or nothing rather than “both- and”.

Flynn and co- authors also surprisingly found that board directors stated that women mentees “failed to understand the importance of image and executive presence” and “the informal code that exists in all organizations, to be politically savvy”. Flynn also describes “pink chair roles” where women climb the ranks through HR and finance, rather than business and P&L lines, and urges women to get out of those roles.

Career Coaching Tips: If you’re looking for more power and success in your life, ask yourself what rules you’re following – cultural, psychological and habitual – that aren’t serving you. When you find one, experiment with breaking it and see what happens. Take the good outcomes from your experience and build on them. The six rules in this study need to be broken and the consequences of breaking them are often not nearly as dire as we fear. Put the fear aside and get smashing!

Category: Cultural Trends

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 This post originally appeared on InPower Women.


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