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06 November 2018

Prejudice against introverts presents yet another barrier to women's leadership

Emma Taggart, leadership coach for introverts

Introversion can mean women's voices are ignored even more

Introverted woman
Introverted woman

The concept of intersectionality is familiar but how often do we think about personality in relation to barriers to leadership? Factors intersect with gender to make it even more difficult for women to be taken seriously. Quite rightly, we talk about race and class. Another factor is introversion. 

An introvert is someone who needs relatively little external stimulation to feel their best. The stimulation of talking to colleagues all day or working in a noisy office will exhaust introverts. We need to be alone, somewhere quiet, to recharge our batteries. By contrast, extroverts need lots of stimulation.

Introverts like being with people. Many of us are not shy. They’re not the same thing.

It is commonly said that between a third and a half of the population is introverted. In a crowd of 100 people, between 30 and 50 are introverts.

Women may not be any more introverted than men on average but we know they get less air time in meetings and their ideas often go unheard or are appropriated by men. This applies to all women, but introverted women face a double bind – they have to overcome other people’s prejudices about introversion, as well as gender, to be recognised at work.

Introverted women (and men) face an extra barrier to leadership because so often we picture leaders as white, middle class, gregarious men. The traditional idea of a leader is a dynamic talker who leads from the front and enjoys the spotlight. He (it is usually ‘he’) makes quick, assertive decisions and exudes self-confidence. Introverted leaders spend more time listening, thinking and reflecting than we do talking. We lead by collaboration or from behind the scenes. Our demeanour is unassuming and we tend to speak softly.

My personality doesn’t match the traditional idea of what a leader is, so for many years I assumed I couldn’t lead. Many organisations make the same assumption about some of their employees.

Our culture tells us effective leaders must be extroverted, but recent evidence suggests introverts can lead just as well.

Professor Adam Grant, of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues have shown how in some circumstances introverts are the better bosses. That is especially the case when leading teams of proactive people with many ideas.

The CEO Genome Project reported the findings of a 10-year investigation led by an international team of psychologists and economists. The project looked at what high-performing chief executives have in common. In a sample of 2,000 leaders, researchers found that although people often believe chief executives should fit the extrovert stereotype, in fact introverts do slightly better in the top job.

So, we assume leaders must be extroverted although evidence refutes this. What can we do to ensure introverted women are perceived as capable of leadership? Here are three suggestions.

Become familiar with research on introverted leadership and tell people about it. Correcting false assumptions is a key step in changing perceptions about who can and can’t lead.

We aim to call out sexism whenever we see it. We also need to challenge common working practices that put introverts at a disadvantage. For example, poorly-run meetings are rife. People interrupt and talk over each other with no pause for reflection. The result is extroverts, who develop ideas by talking them through, get more than their fair share of airtime while introverts struggle and are not given the space they need to think through ideas. It’s difficult for introverts to be seen as leaders when they are effectively silenced and extroverts are enabled to shine.

We could develop our understanding of introverted strengths and how these apply to leadership. Introverts possess natural strengths which make us well-placed to lead. Our preference for listening means we are good at giving colleagues space to share ideas. Our capacity for deep thought means we excel at synthesising different viewpoints into effective decisions, ideas and solutions. Our willingness to share the spotlight means we don’t always expect to lead from the front but are happy to let others share leadership, develop skills and take on responsibility.

Introverts are not commonly thought of as leaders but research explodes the idea that they shouldn’t be. If we’re to truly make progress in removing barriers to female leadership, we must start valuing the strengths of introverted women.

Emma Taggart coaches new, emerging and aspiring introverted leaders. Previously Emma worked as Director of Policy & Campaigns at Breakthrough Breast Cancer. To learn more about Emma’s work, visit or find her on LinkedIn.