Why Women PhDs Should Apply For Leadership Roles

“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.

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…

Businessman and businesswoman walking on tramac in front of airplane.

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.

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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Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.
Catherine 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.

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