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Why Women PhDs Should Apply For Leadership Roles

Women PhDs should apply for leadership roles in the private sector
Written by: Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

“Leader” can be an intimidating label.

It was hard to believe that people would look up to me, ask for guidance, or trust my direction.

During my PhD, I shied away from the spotlight.

When an experiment went well, it was luck.

When a paper was accepted, it was thanks to a soft reviewer.

When I received my degree with summa cum laude, I refused to have a big celebration.

Imposter syndrome was dictating my actions.

I never wanted the acclamations and I thought, as a leader, everyone would realize what a phony I was.

But that wasn’t the case.

Being a leader doesn’t have to be as grandiose as leading the troops into battle.

Leadership is about finding out who you are as a person and using your gifts, your own unique attributes, to inspire others to be the best versions of themselves.

Leaders do not create a vision on their own but bring together the best team of individuals that, together, can achieve greatness.

As PhDs, we lead projects and teams and inspire students to follow in our footsteps.

We have the technical savvy and transferable skills to transition into any industry role.

What is lacking for many women is the confidence to do so.

And the boldness to go down the road less traveled, and find a company whose values match our own and where we can climb the corporate ladder to truly make a difference in society.

That’s why I decided to apply to be a part of the Homeward Bound journey.

It is the largest all-female expedition to Antarctica and aims to heighten the influence and impact of women with a science background in order to guide policy and decision-making as it shapes our planet.

It is time for women to build conviction around the importance of their voices.

It is time for us to take center stage and make a difference.

The number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies has been declining in recent years

Why Women With PhDs Should Strive For Management Positions

The number of female leaders is growing — but it is nowhere near reaching gender parity.

The percentage of women in parliament nearly doubled in the last 20 years, but that only equates to 22% of women in parliament today.

According to the Fortune Knowledge Group, the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies declined to 21 — not 21%, but 21 in total.

That equates to 4.2% of the 500 largest US companies by revenue being led by female CEOs.

This needs to change.

Women PhDs have the knowledge and the skills to reach the C-suite.

When companies have diverse leadership styles and include diverse opinions at all stages of management, they will be poised to have more sustainable growth.

When a company brings a new drug to market, develops a new policy, or communicates new ideas to the public, these decisions will affect women, their families, and society in general.

Therefore, women must have a voice in this decision-making process.

It is the responsibility of PhDs as global citizens to show up and contribute their time and amazing talent in order to benefit society.

Top 3 Reasons Why More Women PhDs Should Enter Into Leadership Roles

It is not easy being a leader.

But PhDs thrive on challenges.

They thrive in difficult situations.

They know how to deal with negative people and positively influence others.

So why do women PhDs in particular shy away from taking on leadership roles?

Too humble? Lacking self-confidence? Or just afraid to make mistakes?

This shouldn’t be the case.

Regardless of the reasons holding women back from entering leadership roles, it’s time their actions move beyond their fears and in the right direction.

With women at the helm, we have the ability to enact positive change in any company, from pharmaceutical giants, to the nonprofit sector, and government.

Here are three reasons why more women PhDs should enter into leadership roles…

Women CEOs ensure all voices are heard before making management decisions

1. Women possess modern leadership skills.

Women instinctively care about building relationships.

They show more compassion, empathy, and have a more open and inclusive negotiation style.

This leads to leadership which is less hierarchical and more inclusive.

This is in line with the more contemporary model of organizational structure which companies are moving to.

Here, the organization looks at the overall structure and team environment, and considers that individuals have different goals, talents, and potentials.

The aim of this model is to strike a balance between the goals of the individual and the goals of the organization.

Employees want job security and to be paid a respectable wage, but they also want to work in a positive environment where the organization adds value to the community and/or its customers.

Everyone, from the entry-level employee to the president, should feel that they have a stake in the organization and its success.

Women have the innate ability to ensure everyone’s voice is heard while making decisions that will positively influence the company as a whole.

2. Women provide positive impact to companies and society.

Maybe you are still not convinced of the impact that women can have.

Here is some hard evidence.

Research by McKinsey shows that companies in the top quartile for diversity are 15% more likely to financially outperform those in the bottom quartile.

A Goldman Sachs report argues that Japan could boost its absolute GDP by 12.5% if female workforce participation rose to match that of men.

A study by a Canadian university concluded that diversity at the leadership table ‘contributes to better policy, program development, operations, public consultations, services, and workplace conditions.’

Having women in leadership roles is a financially savvy move for any company, bringing growth and promoting a culture of social responsibility and diversity.

But the benefits are more far-reaching than the company balance sheet.

In developing countries, having more women leaders positively impacts how policy resources are spent, through budgeting or simply because women experience issues differently than men.

Women leaders have spurred solutions, like clean solar cook stoves, and have helped drive direct change in policies such as parental leave, child care, and pay.

Women should not be afraid of taking management risks

3. Women fill an overall need for more leaders.

Maybe you’re not ready for the C-suite.

That doesn’t mean that you cannot be a leader.

Leaders are needed to meet the challenges of today and the future.

They create an energy which leads to the superior performance of their peers.

How many leaders do we need?


They can come from anywhere and be anyone.

Remember, being a leader does not mean you have to manage a group.

It can be as simple as finding a solution that benefits the entire team.

Lead by example.

To be a leader, self-awareness is key.

Know what unique qualities you bring to the table and how that can positively influence a team.

No matter your role in a company or whether you are still in the middle of your transition from academia, find a senior mentor you can shadow and who can help you develop your leadership skills.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, take risks, and go for positions that make you feel uncomfortable.

Use your fear as a motivation and don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder and asked.

Women PhDs are poised to enter into leadership roles. They possess the qualities that allow businesses to thrive and allow for positive changes in both policy and society at large. Do not let Imposter Syndrome and your own self-doubt prevent you from applying your PhD for the benefit of society. Businesses and society alike need women to find their voices and use them to enact change. You have the skills, you have the ability. Now is the time.

To learn more about why women PhDs should apply for leadership roles, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Alejandra Viviescas

    Cathy I could not agree more. I have always thought that it is in evrybody’s interest to have more women in decission making roles, not because of plain gender eqaulity, but because women naturaly see things in a different perpective than men. This is true not only for gender but for al kind of diversity. I really appriciated your article, it meda me feel that I am not alone

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Alejandra! That is wonderful to hear.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    I love your definition of leadership. I think that too many women don’t seek leadership positions because they don’t want to appear to be pushy. Your definition helps women grasp that they have the qualities that are most desirable in today’s management style. In fact, I read a thesis lately dealing with implementing TQM in multi-billion-dollar corporations, and it went through a very long process of creating the kind of management style that comes naturally to many (if not most) women. You are right on the money, Cathy, and I’m glad Imposter Syndrome didn’t stop you before you got started.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Carlie – I really appreciate that.

  • Shawn Lyons, PhD

    It’s hard to believe that so few women are in the C-suites of Fortune 500 companies. I thought that women had come a lot farther than that in achieving parity. You never know what you’re going to learn next on this site!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      LOL – Always keeping you on your toes Shawn 🙂

  • Theo

    Great reasons for women to get involved, great studies backing up the idea.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Theo!

  • Winona Petit

    I don’t think that today’s men have the same stigma as the ones that were running things when I first started. I sat in on a sociology class recently because a friend was guest teaching, and the discussion convinced me that this generation sees things very differently from the way my own did.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely Winona. We should be happy about how much we have progressed!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    This is really inspiring, Cathy! I think of myself as upwardly mobile, but I realize that there are times when I hesitate and question my value and whether I should really be reaching for more. Your comment about the management styles of women is very encouraging on many levels. This is great food for thought; much more, it’s great fuel for action.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Ooo I love that line: fuel for action. Thank you Madeline!

  • Kathy Azalea

    Right on, Kathy! This is so encouraging! As a new PhD, I’ve been focused on just finding the right position and doing my networking without being so intent on whatever the future holds. But your words are very encouraging and uplifting. A lot of my friends are going through the same thing, where they are excited to be saying goodbye to academia, but not too sure what the future holds. You can be sure I’ll give them a pep talk and direct them to your article. 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Kathy – it is excited and scary to step out of academia and see what career path is right for you. But the key is not to let our self-doubt or pre-conceived notions hold us back.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I’m all for it! Variety is the spice of life, and the more we mix it up, the better. In my work, I come into contact with all kinds of people from many countries, ethnicities, ways of life…One of the things I like about the sciences in general is that it doesn’t too much matter where you came from or what your background is. It matters a great deal if you can think, discern subtle indications by looking at data, and cooperate with your fellow scientists in creating improvements in systems across a wide variety of fields. So I say, women, go for it!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely Matthew! I could not agree more.

  • Sonja Luther

    It’s true, the limits are dissolving and we women are making tremendous progress. It’s a shame that it had to be this way, but going way back to when women were not even able to vote, we’ve made huge strides. I wonder if the myth about women not being good at math and science is part of the reason so many CEO’s are men as opposed to women. And I wonder if it’s because the men think that, or because the women themselves do?

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Great point Sonja – I definitely think that there is unconscious bias in both men and women about what positions we are suitable for (or where we can thrive) but the progress is clear and we must keep moving forward.

  • Willow Sampson

    We always think that we should defer to the leaders, but we don’t often realize that the world needs lots of leaders. What you’re saying is a fresh thought to me.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      That’s great to hear Willow. I think we forget that leaders come in many different capacities.

  • Julian Holst

    I really like this topic. First, the idea that good leadership is always going to be needed appeals to me. That seems true when I look at my own experiences, and it’s really not that hard to step up and be a leader. Second, the idea that the concept of leadership is changing appeals to me. It used to be that the biggest bullies made the best leaders. Not true anymore. Third, why wouldn’t women make great leaders? This is more up to the individual than the biological makeup of the candidate. We need to have good leadership no matter where we find it, and we have to uphold human values. Why not women?

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely Julian. I like the point of the shifting idea of what a leader should entail. More inclusive leadership will benefit us economically and help others to follow in their footsteps.

  • Aparna Lakshmanan

    Very inspiring and an amazing article, Cathy!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re most welcome Aparna! I am happy you liked it!