Why It Can Feel So Much More Lonely at the Top for Women

Contributed by Inge Woudstra, Founding Director of Mum & Career

Once in a leadership role, many women report feeling on their own, lonely, and lacking support. You know you are good at your job and your promotion was deserved. But how do you treat your team members who were your peers only yesterday? You wonder: “Can I still have a chat, or join in a joke?” And you can’t help noticing, but why on earth does the conversation suddenly stop at the water cooler when you approach? Can you no longer be friends?

It’s not just that. Now that you are in a leadership position you find it increasingly hard to know who to take into confidence about the issues on your desk, and especially the people-issues. You don’t want to break confidentiality, but it’s sure hard to not talk about them at all.

Your fellow leaders don’t seem an option. They seem to have turned hostile overnight, and give you a sense they are competing with you. Why do you suddenly have to compete with everyone? Surely you deserve some support?!

These are thoughts women typically have a lot more than most men when they are promoted, and it makes them feel lonely. It’s not something to be ashamed of, not at all.

But it doesn’t have to be lonely for women. You can have fun and be the top dog, and it’s not even that hard to do once you know how it works.

Research Shows Women Don’t Thrive on Hierarchy

One of the keys to the ‘loneliness’ issue, is that, in general, women have a different way of finding security than men. Women crave affirmation to feel secure, but most do not find this at the top.

This isn’t some sort of sad thing, and doesn’t mean women are inferior. It’s just how we are built. And it’s to do with hormones and the way we compete with other women. Let me explain. Women have a higher level of the hormone oxytocin – even from before birth. This hormone enables girls to compete on ‘being nice’, i.e. the nicest girl is most popular. It’s not so clear and visible where you are in the hierarchy. So girls are constantly evaluating where they – and their peers – are. Getting confirmation and compliments from their friends shows them they are safe.

Men also have a strong need to feel secure. However, they feel most secure when they are strongest and best. Men have a higher level of testosterone. This hormone enables boys to compete for status and a top position. Boys feel secure when they know the hierarchy, when they know who is the top dog. They feel best when they are the top dog. After all it’s much less likely people will attack the top dog.

So men seek security in social prestige, rather than in friendships. A top position makes him feel safe, his authority and status make it difficult to be attacked. Moreover, men tend to take the attack as ‘coming with the job.’

In practice it works like this: When in a top position, a man has to deal with jealous men around him. He can handle this, as he thinks “of course, you are jealous, as I have a bigger car and earn more than you.” Women also have to deal with jealousy, but she thinks,
“Why can’t we still be friends?”

(These insights are based on the research and book
The Beauty of Difference
, by Dr. Martine F. Delfos, so far only available in Dutch unfortunately.)

Find the Right Girlfriends – Your Network of Peers

Now we know we women are looking for ways to feel safe and secure. This is a very strong and elemental need in each person. This means that ignoring it, and just getting on with the job – as an ice-queen – isn’t going to be easy and will probably take a lot of energy.

So here’s what you can do in 2 simple steps:

  1. Don’t expect to be friends with the people in your team.
    Don’t even try. Be their boss, that’s what they need you for. They need your support, your feed-back, your understanding, and your guidance as a boss. To succeed you need to learn that you can be secure even if not everyone likes you.It may help to remember that being a boss is not a popularity contest. Think of it as being a parent: your children aren’t always going to like you, but you do it with their best interests at heart and when they grow up they will be grateful. The same will be true for your team members.
  2. Get a network of people with similar status.
    Next, what you need to do is create a peer group; peers that can be your safe and secure haven; a place where you can vent, gossip, and turn for advice.Unfortunately, these are usually NOT your fellow leaders, as most of them will be vying for the top-dog position, and that requires them to be competitive with you. It’s not unkind or unfriendly, it’s just what boys do to feel secure, remember? As soon as you show a sign of weakness, or share an issue, they may take advantage of this in one way or another.These peers are also NOT your internal sponsor or mentor. Mentors and sponsors are usually in the same organization, and might also be competing with you. You need them to think you are brilliant. So they will blow your trumpet to others and get your name up there for the next big client, project, or leadership position. If you want to know more about sponsorship, do check out the report by Catalyst: Sponsoring Women to Success.

    So who do you need? Who can give you the security you need. What you need is a network of peers, probably from outside the organisation. It usually works best to find people at the same level, and perhaps even in the same industry as you are in.

Build Your Network of Peers – One Step at a Time

This may sound easy, but where do you find these peers? This is not done overnight. Take your time to build it. Join a networking organization that meets regularly, go to a training programme, check on-line groups or find other places where you can meet women at a similar level. You may wish to check out the list of networks and training programmes for women leaders on the Mum & Career website (, in addition We Are the City have a great agenda for networking in London.

I also know several women who just started their own network when they couldn’t find what they were looking for in their city. This might just be what you need to do.

Now that you know what you need, and now that you know you have to organise it, you can just start. Don’t hesitate to spend some time on creating something that is for you. Something that helps you be a much more savvy and concentrated leader.

Start building now, and see your confidence flourish. It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top, you just need a place to share, and then it will be fun!

I would love to know what you did to make it less lonely at the top? Did you follow any of the tips above, how did you do it, and how did it work for you?

This guest article was contributed by Inge Woudstra, a working women’s expert, tutor, and researcher. Inge runs MC Services. Its flagship portal Mum & Career shows professional working mothers how to navigate career and family. On the portal you will find: links to high-quality expert articles, tips and guidance from experts and mums that have been there before and where to go for training, networking and workshops for women in London and Surrey.

Inge brings her experience with professional working mothers into organizations as well, helping them to retain and develop female talent. She organizes events for internal women’s networks, and runs learning circles. If you would like a fun, powerful event for your women’s network, then please contact her at