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5 issues women face in VET and how we can Choose To Challenge them

March 15, 2021

On March 8 it was International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality. According to the World Economic Forum, it’s going to take another 100 years until we achieve gender equality. It’s pretty clear women have faced many barriers in the workplace, so it’s imperative we all #ChooseToChallenge these issues every day to create change.

We know that in VET, the number of women in leadership and management roles is quite high[1], but women still face everyday challenges that can get sidelined. Here are 5 everyday issues women deal with in the workplace that we can challenge and change.

1. Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is having the internal belief that you aren’t as competent as others perceive you to be, or that you’re ‘tricking’ everyone to think you’re the best person for a role.

imposter syndrome

Although imposter syndrome can affect anyone, women experience it in a way that is affected by their success being ‘contradicted by societal expectations and and their own internalised self-evaluations’[2]. As an example, this can be seen in the statistic that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them[3]. This lack of self-confidence many women feel surrounding their work capabilities can lead to negative self-talk becoming the norm, and the vicious cycle of imposter syndrome is created. Although imposter syndrome isn’t singular to any particular industry, it does affect many women in VET, especially those in leadership roles.

To challenge imposter syndrome, we can:

  • Recognise when you have imposter syndrome. The Clance IP Scale, developed by researchers Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance from Oberlin College, is a good tool to assess if you suffer from imposter syndrome characteristics.
  • Tell someone how you feel. Telling someone how you feel can not only lift a weight off your shoulders, but can also create a support system that will help break the habit of feeling like an imposter.
  • Separate feelings from fact. Recognise that how you’re feeling doesn’t directly correlate with the facts of the situation.
  • Recognise that failure is part of success. Everyone makes mistakes – it’s how you respond to the mistake that matters. From every failure comes a learning opportunity, and spending valuable time berating yourself for the mistake instead of thinking about how you can do better is probably worse than the original mistake you made.
  • Practice positive self-talk. When you catch yourself thinking and believing negative thoughts, switch your perspective and think about the things you’ve objectively done well, and use that positivity to empower yourself to do great work. Visualisation can support this too. And just remember, even the most successful leaders in the world have experienced imposter syndrome.
imposter syndrome example

2. Stress and Lack of Self-prioritisation

According to McKinsey, women are more likely than men to experience burn-out, they’re under pressure to work more, and feel as though they have to be ‘always on’[4]. In fact, women are often held to higher performance standards than men, and may be more likely to take the blame for failure (there’s our sneaky imposter syndrome again). These factors can lead to a lot of stress. With busy schedules, and the digital world creating unrealistic expectations of constant availability, blurring the lines between work and home life, this is unsustainable.

To challenge this imbalance, working with your team or colleagues to put focus on better work-life boundaries is imperative. Setting new work norms is key here, and the whole company should get on board with setting these boundaries, such as putting policies in place for responding to emails outside business hours and creating availability measures.

employee challenges and stress during COVID-19
Women have been most affected at work during the pandemic – McKinsey, 2020[4]

3. Struggling with Assertiveness

Being assertive as a woman in the workplace can sometimes feel like a balancing act between being viewed as ‘too aggressive’ or ‘too quiet’ and not involved enough. A lack of assertiveness can commonly show up in small ways, such as unnecessarily apologising in emails to be viewed as ‘less aggressive’[5]. In a recent Harvard Business Review article[6], the author alludes to a female partner in a global consulting firm, who is ‘not often prone to sentimentality’ as ‘it is not easy to earn partnership as a woman in a masculine business environment’. Many female leaders feel they need to act more like a man to command and control, however this can also backfire when they are viewed as too harsh and ‘not feminine enough’. However, if a woman leader displays more traditionally feminine traits, such as leading with empathy, they are viewed as ‘too submissive’.

It’s another vicious cycle for women in leadership, and it’s a barrier for women trying to move into leadership. Although this cycle is a hard one to tackle, taking notes from the way successful women leaders lead, such as Jacinda Ardern, is an effective way to start.

jacinda arden assertive leadership

4. Double-standards

While all individuals in organisations can face internal identity struggles, according to Jehn, Meister, & Sinclair (2017), women face a unique set of challenges. In a society that has traditionally conceptualised leadership as a masculine endeavor, women aspiring to leadership roles may be disadvantaged before they even embark on leadership positions, due to deeply embedded societal unconscious bias and expectations. According to Brescoll (2016) from Yale University, women are seen as more communal, being warm and nurturing, rather than having agency, with traits such as ambition and independence. As we mentioned before, leadership roles require agency, but when a woman does display agency she often experiences backlash effects because she is seen as not being sufficiently communal and lacking emotional control. It’s pretty hard to change a mainstream societal view, but continuing to self-promote and self-advocate for leadership roles, and showing you can be a good leader, will help to carve your path into leadership.

5. Parenting

Although an increasing number of companies are starting to provide paternity leave as well as maternity leave, research shows that women are the ones who do significantly more housework and childcare than men – so much so that ‘women who are employed full-time are often said to be working a “double-shift”’[4]. Flexible working hours and working from home has helped many families with their work-life balance, but there’s still work to be done when it comes to solving this challenge.

parenting working mothers work life balance
Mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an additional three or more hours per day on housework and childcare–McKinsey, 2020[4]

There is a quote you may have heard: “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief”. And it's no surprise this quote resonates with so many women – women are constantly scrutinised and judged on “their appearance, their voices, their age, their behaviour, their attitude, marital status, whether they have children, how they raise their children, how they make other people feel, how other people behave in their presence — and that’s just for starters”[7]. Although women face many more challenges than the five listed in this article, we hope this raises valuable conversations about choosing to challenge inequality in the workplace in many training organisations.

Read more about aXcelerate’s commitment to gender equality from our Director Jules here.


  1. The VET Lifestyle Survey Results
  2. Is impostor syndrome real, and does it affect women more than men?
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2014/09/11/are-women-too-timid-when-they-job-search/?sh=5229771e411d
  4. McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2020
  5. Why women should drop these words from their work emails
  6. You Need a Personal Highlight Reel
  7. Has the Constant Scrutiny of Women Actually Given Them an Advantage?


aXcelerate Director Jules Verner-Mackay has created a VET Women As Leaders LinkedIn group.

There’s never been a better time to focus on the positive, to be inspired and to share our stories. Jules has often said that a woman alone has power but collectively, we are able to achieve amazing things including making a difference in our industry. By raising each other up and using the power of collaboration, we are able to identify our strengths, acquire new knowledge and gain greater confidence.

If you're interested in being part of this community, join here.

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