The burden of guilt for executive women - and how it's keeping us playing small if we let it

The Burden fo guilt for executive women.jpg

Working Women Guilt is a thing. It's well documented and not just limited to working mothers. Executive women the globe over, whether they are parents or not, talk about feeling guilty. A lot.

Anne Marie Slaughter (Why Women Still Can't Have it All) and Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) have both written about guilt and women. Feeling guilty has become a way of life for many. 

Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change.
— Gretchen Rubin

Things women tell me they feel guilty about:

  • Sleeping in and not getting a workout in before work

  • Not getting up at 5am to start work early

  • Earning more than male peers or partners (if lucky enough!) 

  • Leaving the office before others  

  • Not being there for kids while working

  • Working out, when you should be at home doing something for the kids

  • Asking working mothers to stay back late at the office

  • Making mistakes at work 

  • Not being thin enough / well dressed enough / good enough - full stop

  • Eating/drinking too much

  • Under/over performing 

  • Choosing to take a significant career break whether you are a parent or not

  • Choosing not to take a significant career break as a parent (working mother guilt)

  • Not having a career strategy

  • Not being ambitious enough

  • Being too ambitious

  • Speaking or laughing too loudly in the office

  • Not cooking proper home cooked meals for the family

And the list goes on .....

Guilt can be contradictory, convoluted and complicated. Lots of examples in the list above of damned when we do, and doomed when we don't. And then you feel guilty, or possibly even stupid, for having these contradictory feelings of guilt!

But importantly it's a huge list - hence the burden.

Brené Brown said

“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame's is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.”

But I suggest that when we are overwhelmed with guilty feelings for too many items, that it leads to feelings of shame. That too much guilt might be the thing that moves the needle on the dial into the danger zone where executive women head back into the realm of underestimating themselves, downplaying their achievements and leaning out, not in or up.

The Stereotype Effect is alive and well for executive women and stronger for women than men. Studies suggest that when we're reminded of our femininity we are more prone to performing to the stereotype, or feel guilty if/when we don't. 


There are benefits in feeling guilty. Research tells us that despite what you might imagine, the reward centres in our brain light up when we feel guilt and shame (weird, I know! But at least you are doing something about your problems, not ignoring them).

Then even more research demonstrates that guilt helps with empathy and building and maintaining relationships, with one study finding that while shame was linked to personal distress, guilt was linked to perspective taking.  Is this then why "the feminine" is said to be better at emotional intelligence and relationships? 

But when the burden of guilt becomes overwhelming and possibly even for contradictory issues, it runs the risk of becoming a Catch 22 and a waste of energy. It's distracting, draining and keeps us playing small.


Have you heard the expression "like water off a ducks back" - where hurts and infractions slide right off?  Perhaps we need to embrace that more fully. 

Much easier to do when you are deeply connected to your sense of purpose and why, or have your eyes on the prize. We know that the modesty effect is depressed when you are deeply connected to your sense of purpose, so why not the stereotype effect as well?

So next time you start to berate yourself for eating that extra Tim Tam, instead of feeling guilty, keep your eyes on the prize and practice being like Teflon.

Then remind yourself of the benefits of feeling guilty and then simply get on with the business of being great again!




► I'm a speaker, mentor and writer on all things self promotion for executive women

► I challenge the status quo to help women carve new pathways for themselves

Feel like your leadership journey has stalled? Email to set up a 30 min one on one to learn more. Helping clients shift from feeling invisible to becoming invincible in just 12 months