Coaching boosts women’s legitimacy to lead in male-dominated workplaces and could have a pivotal role in shifting to gender parity. Kate Oldridge reports


It will take more than 200 years for women to have the same pay and employment opportunities as men by current trends, according to the World Economic Forum (2018).

However, this timeline could shorten dramatically as part of the widespread social and political sea change in how we tackle gender inequalities in society and male-dominated workplaces.

My research at Henley Business School (Oldridge, 2019) highlights the potentially pivotal role leadership coaching can play in bringing about a positive shift.

The past two years has seen the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns gather extraordinary momentum, and they now sit at the forefront of a significant cultural shift towards gender equality that we are witnessing around the world.

However recent gender pay gap data has shown that almost eight in ten UK companies still pay their male employees more (BBC, 2019), revealing the lack of women in senior leadership positions and prompting questions as to why this is. Progression of women in FTSE 350 companies is not increasing quickly enough to meet the immediate goal of 33% of women in leadership teams and on boards by 2020 (Hampton-Alexander Review 2018).  

We are moving in the right direction, but still have a long way to go. We must accelerate the pace of change. It is time to take stock and look at what’s working and what’s not working, in a bid to achieve gender parity in the workplace.



As part of my MSc (Oldridge, 2019), I conducted a grounded theory study into how coaching influenced the development of senior women in a large global non-governmental organisation. The findings suggest an increase in women’s feelings of legitimacy through coaching helps to even out status and power differences between women and men in the organisation, empowering women to be stronger leaders.

A theory centred on female leaders’ struggles with legitimacy is not new. For Vial, Napier and Brescoll (2016), issues around ‘legitimacy’ – which they define as “a state in which a leader’s power over others is seen as deserved and justified” – leads to the under-representation of women in senior leadership positions.

Some studies on coaching women highlight how coaching has supported female leaders’ development of female leaders (eg, Bonneywell, 2017; Worth, 2012) but only Worth makes reference to outsider groups and legitimacy, and then only fleetingly. None of the studies on coaching women identified a lack of legitimacy arising out of a male-dominated organisational context.

My research builds on the work of Vial, Napier and Brescoll, reinforcing their view that a legitimacy lens may ultimately explain the persistence of the gender gap in senior leadership positions in sectors that are traditionally male-dominated at the top level, and exploring the role of coaching in such a perspective.

‘Boys’ club culture’ was a dominant theme that emerged in my research. While at the time of interviewing, women had recently outnumbered men on the organisation’s senior leadership team, the study data indicated that a boys’ club culture was entrenched. Subtle prejudicial barriers were impacting participants’ leadership development.

Previous studies have shown that even a historical male-dominated workplace culture can still carry with it ‘think manager – think male’ attitudes (Schein 1973; 2007). It takes a long time to transform organisational culture.

My findings illustrated some of the challenges these women faced in such a culture, including struggling to find their own authentic leadership style, and men “interrupting women all the time”. Interviewees described being forced to navigate a male organisational environment in which masculine leadership behaviours and structures were the norm. For example, one participant recounted how women were not able to tap into the same level of sponsorship and encouragement from senior colleagues as men. This is consistent with the concept of homosocial reproduction: the natural, self-perpetuating tendency of – in this case – those in power to support those most like their younger selves.

One woman claimed that “sexism in the workplace is still rife” within the organisation, but the majority cited examples of ‘second-generation’ gender biases – the powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women in the workplace (Ibarra et al, 2013) – more widely than overt sexual harassment and discrimination.

For example, the vast majority experienced the so-called ‘double bind’ dilemma: where women suffer bias as a result of inconsistencies between female gender stereotypes (being warm, nurturing, collaborative) and the prevailing masculine definitions of leadership (being assertive, competitive, authoritative).

Where a man would be judged assertive, a woman is judged abrasive. Where a man is deemed strong and decisive, a woman is considered to be bossy and abrupt. This perceived violation of gender roles presented an ongoing challenge for these senior female leaders.

A common theme was of women believing that they were “judged much more harshly than men” in various aspects, including when mistakes were made. They experienced difficulties with being direct, decisive and assertive. One woman described the challenge of “speaking up and speaking out without being accused of being a harpy”.

Many of these women suffered from a “psychological glass ceiling”, internalising gender and status biases that “elevate men as natural leaders and regard women as ‘less than’ ” (O’Neil & Hopkins, 2015), resulting in a lack of confidence and entitlement.

Women described challenges around feelings of inadequacy, self-belief, never feeling good enough and imposter syndrome. One woman recounted, “I kind of felt that I was at the table but didn’t deserve to be at the table.” Another explained how she felt that she had lacked the “legitimacy to lead”. Several women had battled with “gymslip syndrome” – the act of slipping into “this ridiculous role of feeling like a schoolgirl… talking nonsense” in the presence of “posh, older men”.


Identity, confidence and authority

Coaching allowed a safe reflection space for these female leaders, where they were able to increase their self-awareness and gain clarity about some of these structural dynamics at play, and how they were able to overcome them by modifying their behaviours.

As the women were able to develop their own authentic leadership style and build their confidence and authority through coaching, this led to an increase in their sense of legitimacy as leaders.

A major theme highlighted by participants was how coaching enabled women to develop their identity as a leader. Participants talked about how being coached helped them to find a way to lead authentically – true to self and gender – while adopting strategies to counter gender bias.

One participant described how coaching helped her realise that it is possible to “be successful but in a way that is not macho and testosterone fuelled”. Another described how the coaching had been invaluable, stating that “I don’t think I would be the leader that I am without the coaching, absolutely, no doubt about that.”

The participants were unanimous in their assessment that coaching had resulted in an increase in confidence, variously stating: “It built my confidence, definitely”; “I think coaching gives you more confidence for sure”; “my confidence has increased quite dramatically”.

The link between self-awareness and confidence was highlighted by one participant who stated that it was “one of my most powerful…coaching experiences I think to remind myself not to go straight into gymslip”, by reminding herself that her “default was it must be me that’s wrong and them that’s right”, and to “keep in touch with my adult self”.

Seven of the nine participants discussed how coaching had improved their authority and sense of entitlement, and how it facilitated them being seen as leaders.

There was a strong link between the building of confidence and the sense of entitlement: one participant described how a change of mindset to behave like a leader instilled in her a sense that she deserved to be in the role. One participant claimed that following coaching she had “shifted quite significantly” in terms of “how I show up at the leadership table”.


  • Kate Oldridge gained a distinction for her MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School. An independent executive coach, she also works with colleagues Lucy Widdowson and Gail Lineham at Beyond the Gap, offering systemic leadership development programmes for women. She is the author of: ‘A grounded theory study exploring the contribution of coaching to rebalancing organisational power imbalances for female leaders’, in
    The Coaching Psychologist, 15(1).
  • For executive coaching: kate@kateoldridgecoaching.com
  • For systemic women in leadership programmes: kate@beyondthegap.co.uk
  • LinkedIn: http://bit.ly/2F2pJ6a



Key lessons

  • Organisations with male-dominated workplace cultures can take positive steps towards closing the gender pay gap through the use of coaching to empower senior women and so redress gender power imbalances.
  • Coaching may very well be part of the solution to the problem of the under-representation of women in senior leadership positions, but it is a complex problem requiring a multivariate solution. The development of women through coaching and leadership development programmes creates a more level playing field for women in the workplace, and is undoubtedly needed given the gender-based challenges that women face.
  • We should ensure, though, that this development work for women on an individual level be backed up with a wider programme of systemic measures, otherwise when the women return back into the system the problems can reappear.
  • Change is needed at both individual and systemic levels in order to pave the way for more women to move into the senior ranks of organisations. By working at both levels, we can enable women to break through gender-based barriers at work to achieve their full potential and move beyond the glass ceiling. In this way, leadership coaching can play a key role in the move towards gender equality in the workplace.


  • Hampton-Alexander Review, Improving Gender Balance in FTSE Leadership, November 2018
  • BBC News, ‘Gender pay: Fewer than half of UK firms narrow gap’, 5 April 2019
  • S Bonneywell, ‘How a coaching intervention supports the development of female leaders in a global organisation’, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring (Special Issue No. 11), 57-69, 2017
  • H Ibarra, R Ely & D Kolb, ‘Women rising: The unseen barriers’, in Harvard business Review, 91, 60-66, 2013
  • K Oldridge, ‘A grounded theory study exploring the contribution of coaching to rebalancing organisational power imbalances for female leaders’, in The Coaching Psychologist, 15(1), 2019
  • D A O’Neil & M M Hopkins, ‘The impact of gendered organizational systems on women’s career advancement’, in Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 905, 2015
  • V E Schein, ‘The relationship between sex role stereotypes and requisite management characteristics’, in Journal of Applied Psychology, 57, 95, 1973
  • V E Schein, ‘Women in management: reflections and projections’, in Women in Management Review, 22, 6-18, 2007
  • A C Vial, J L Napier & V L Brescoll, ‘A bed of thorns: Female leaders and the self reinforcing cycle of illegitimacy’, in The Leadership Quarterly, 27(3), 400-414, 2016
  • World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2018
  • S Worth, An Exploration of Coaching Women Towards Authenticity in the Workplace: A Heuristic Study with Women in Academia, Oxford Brookes University, 2012
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