February 9, 2024 / Esther Choy

Women leaders must tell their own stories.

When women leaders tell their own stories, they expand the possible narratives for other women and girls. Even though storytelling is a powerful tool for challenging the status quo, many women choose not to tell their own stories. Men, especially men with power, do the most talking, and, therefore, most of the storytelling. Why? Women are penalized when they speak. A study by Yale professor Victoria Brescoll found that gender bias persists at all levels: “powerful women are in fact correct in assuming that they will incur backlash as a result of talking more.”

Why Women Are Less Likely To Tell Their Own Stories

Beyond gender bias, many hurdles can stand in the way of women telling their own stories. When women can be penalized for simply talking, not telling her own story can seem reasonable. In addition, misconceptions about storytelling add hurdles for women leaders, such as:

  • Women may view storytelling as bragging. They don’t want to be seen as attention seekers. Nor do they want to trigger jealousy in others.
  • Women believe they should tell stories of “us” not “I.” Many women in leadership want to use their platform to empower others, and they mistakenly believe that by telling their own stories they are elevating themselves at the expense of others.

But not telling your own stories can have severe implications. It can actually contribute to furthering workplace gender bias. A study by MIT professor Danielle Li found that “female employees were 14% less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues.” Even when women outperform their male colleagues, they are less likely to be perceived as leaders, and more likely to be seen as loyal and agreeable (so they will stick around if they don’t get the promotion or raise).  Women must tell stories to combat these biases.

Everyone Has A Story To Tell

The truth is no one knows your story until you tell it. They may know the facts and milestones of your career — how you’ve moved up the ranks and became the VP of Marketing — but no one knows their significance. Our stories give meaning to the facts on our resumes.

This is why women must tell their own stories — and why everyone who has important women in their lives or counts on the success of women must care about whether or not women are telling their own stories.

In a recent episode of The Moth, two relatives start to record their family tree, guided by the uncle’s memories. When he didn’t remember a name or story, they’d just draw a blank line to fill in the gap. The niece telling the story recounts: “I suddenly realized something. All of the blanks were women. All of them — reduced to a line connecting them to a man. I guess the 1700’s and 1800’s and the 1900’s weren’t a time where women had the sort of adventures that people recorded and celebrated and told stories about and passed down through the generations.”

If you know you are more than a placeholder, you must choose to tell your own stories.

Women Leaders Who Share Their Stories Inspire Future Generations

By choosing not to tell their own stories women are leaving a valuable resource untapped — the imagination. Stories told by women leaders can help people unlearn gender bias. In their book, Women and Leadership, Australia’s former prime minister Julia Gillard and Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, put a fine point on it: “Part of enabling women to see and embrace this better future, to imagine themselves achieving in the world of work and the task of nation-building, is women’s leadership.” Women leaders who tell their own stories expand the possible narratives for other women and girls.

A banner describing Story Lab, a complimentary service to workshop stories with a facilitator.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
Karla Trotman and Robert Pasin

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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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