What’s Stopping Women Leaders? The Barriers We Set Up For Ourselves With Ellen Connelly Taaffe

by | Jan 4, 2024 | Podcasts

Speakers Who Get Results | Ellen Connelly Taaffe | Women Leaders


Many women in business often set strict boundaries for themselves that hinder them from achieving their goals and becoming successful professionals. They fail to become great women leaders because they are trapped in society’s limiting idea that they should stay silent and be good girls. Ellen Connelly Taaffe, a clinical associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, is on a crusade to turn this belief around. Joining Elizabeth Bachman, she presents her book The Mirrored Door and how she guides talented women to break hidden barriers that stop them from being effective leaders. Ellen also talks about the dangers of perfectionism, social media pressure, fitting in, and unhealthy comparison.

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What’s Stopping Women Leaders? The Barriers We Set Up For Ourselves With Ellen Connelly Taaffe

Before we get to my wonderful guest in this episode, I’d like to invite you to see how your presentation skills are doing by going to SpeakForResultsquiz.com. That’s our free four-minute assessment where you can see where your skills are strong and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. In this episode, I’m so proud I managed to get my guest, Ellen Connelly Taaffe. Ellen has written a wonderful book called The Mirrored Door and we’ll talk about that. Let me read her bio. This is only part of her bio. The whole thing is long. It’s quite something.

Ellen Connelly Taaffe is a clinical associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management, which is at Northwestern University. She teaches personal leadership insights and she’s the Director and the Founder of the Women’s Leadership Programming. Ellen designs and delivers Kellogg’s Women’s Leadership Seminar Series, which is the signature program for female students across Kellogg’s MBA program, whether they be full-time, evening and weekend, or executive MBA students. Outside of the school, Ellen serves as an independent board director for 2 public and 1 private company boards, where she’s a Lead Director and Vice Chair. She works with nominating, governance, and compensation, all of which are very important within the board.

This is very high-level getting women’s voices into places of power. She also runs a leadership advisory consulting, speaking, and coaching business. She’s a TEDx speaker. She’s been published in media such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Business Insider, Washington Post, Bloomberg, Kellogg Insight, and many more. Before she started her academic governance and coaching career, Ellen spent 25 years with Fortune 500 companies, such as PepsiCo, Royal Caribbean, and Whirlpool Corporation. In her book, The Mirrored Door: Break Through the Hidden Barrier that Locks Successful Women in Place, Ellen uses her vast experience to help women understand and navigate through internal and external obstacles to create the future careers that they desire. I’m so glad I managed to get her on the show. Here’s the interview with Ellen Connelly Taaffe.


Ellen Connelly Taaffe, I’m so happy that we got you on the show. We are kicking off 2024 with this show so if you’re reading it on its first drops, this is why I wanted to have you on the show because your topic is exactly what I talk about all the time. You had such a very interesting take on the challenge of The Mirrored Door. Before I get into that, let me ask you, who would be your dream interview? If you could interview someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?

First of all, Elizabeth, thank you. I’m so excited to be here. We finally get to have our conversation. I would love to interview Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I would ask her what surprised her about her journey through having such a powerful impact on the roles and the rights of women, and what she thinks looking down on what’s happened since her passing.

Who should be listening?

Every woman and man, regardless. Everyone should be listening. She was so powerful, impactful, and a real inspiration.

I’m a big fan of hers because of all my years in the opera and she loved opera. I have many friends who sang at the Washington Opera. She would marry them. That was one of the very cool things. I was always so jealous. I was like, “I wish I could have been there.” You’ve written this wonderful book called The Mirrored DoorI’ve read it. It’s very clear. I love what we get in instructional books that have tips and points at the end. It sums it up, which is a great thing. You don’t have to wade through and mark it with a highlighter, which I used to do to my textbooks in college. Why did you write the book? Where did the concept of the mirrored door come from?

Speakers Who Get Results | Ellen Connelly Taaffe | Women Leaders

The Mirrored Door

I had a business career. I worked for big companies and then joined Kellogg where I was teaching a leadership course and then also running the women’s leadership program. I was learning how to do that late in my career. In my first year, I was at an orientation. I saw a female CEO share her story and open it up for questions. All the hands that were raised that day were from the men in the room. It was a beautiful auditorium with hundreds of students in there and probably 30% to 40% were women. it wasn’t that it was just a few. It took me back to my MBA orientation where I didn’t raise my hand and neither did the other women in the room. I was dumbfounded like, “I thought it would be different with all the advantages and more numbers that we see in organizations.”

As I got to know the students more and delved into the research, I saw so many different pieces of research where women were holding back and reflecting inward. My definition of the mirrored door is this moment that many women face where we reflect inward and hold back thinking we’re not ready or worthy to move forward into action. It came from this distorted reflection that I certainly see in myself. I do this and have done it while I’ve gotten better at it. It still stays with me but I saw it in my students. I saw it validated in all this research. A great coach was helping me write a speech, my TEDx talk. I was going on and on about this thing that I was seeing. It’s as if it’s a door that we’re locked out of. It’s like a mirror door. This was in my word salad of talking. She came back to me. Her name is AJ Harper. She said, “You said mirrored door. Describe that.” That was the moment of coming up with the metaphor.

This is one of those doors that we put up in front of ourselves and isn’t locked. It’s just that we tell ourselves we can’t go through it.

We might be locked out from other biases or systemic issues. There’s a ton of that that we face but this is something in our control that we might be locking ourselves in. As you said, it is a door. It is unlocked. We have to summon our courage to go through it.

Women are often locked out from biases or systemic issues, but these are out of our control. We just need to summon our courage and go through it. Share on X

I’m curious. Before I get into more detail on this, are there generational differences? Most of the people that I work with are senior executives or executives who should be C-level or VP-level but are stuck. I do the same thing, getting them past the glass ceiling. You work with younger 20 or 30-somethings.

I teach most of the full-time evening and weekend MBA students who are in their late 20s. The executive MBA women are in their 40s and some are in their 50s. I coach a little bit outside of work too and it’s generally similar to your audience as well. Generationally, we want a lot of the same things. The younger you are, the more you think you can get that and maybe are more likely to expect that. I’m older than you, I’m assuming, but the older you are, you are like, “This is what it is,” and not have to deal with it. The younger generation was told you can have it all. They excelled academically and then got out and saw, “No one told me it would be this hard.” We thought it was going to be hard. There were fewer numbers.

There are a lot of women in their 20s and 30s who are like, “I didn’t understand that it would be like this.” That’s part of the book and what we’re doing to share with women how they can navigate this. That’s true. I start to see the pressure of social media. Comparison and perfectionism are increasing. Also, studies on perfectionism are increasing. When you think of even applying to college or MBA school, it’s different. It’s much harder than it was many years ago. With the pressure and high stakes for high-achieving women and executives, self-expectation is even higher.

Some of it is also that the expectation is higher. For me particularly, I remember when I was one of the very few female opera directors in America being accepted as a woman. I was fighting my way up but then not being able to get past the glass ceiling of running a company was my lived experience, which is why I teach it because I made so many mistakes. It’s this whole legacy of history of it’s a man’s world, the men are in charge, or maybe the women are in charge but you have to make the man think he’s in charge or things like that. Do you have any thoughts about where that might come from?

It starts early. The messages that girls receive from family, school, society, and media early on are about being certain, perfect, being the good girl, smiling, making sure everyone else is happy, very strong, having other orientations, and making sure you fit in with the group. There is a girl code early on that is, don’t stand out in acting superior. Whereas boys grow up with one-upmanship and razz each other, which enables them to take feedback later but also take chances with that uncertainty because they learn early on. It might be hard for a little guy growing up to be taunted to do something that’s higher risk. They learn over time to take risks and that they can land on their feet and figure it out. Whereas girls are taught to be certain and attached to school where there’s a rubric and then they get into the workplace. It’s much more about gray areas and taking risks. There’s not always a clear answer like there is earlier and that’s a harder thing.

Somewhere in there, there’s the message that if you make a mistake, it’s fatal. Girls aren’t allowed to make mistakes or if you make a mistake, that reflects on all women. That’s one of the ones that I know. I am old enough to remember hearing stories from my parent’s friends about lady drivers. “Women don’t know how to drive a car.” That is from the ‘40s and ‘50s, which was the generation of my parents. I was hearing those stories and thinking, “We’re not allowed to say that anymore.”

I’m less familiar with that one but to your point, most women would say, “I don’t necessarily feel like anyone’s putting me on a pedestal.” There’s this embedded view of women doing everything right, the moral thing, and all that. When a woman makes a mistake or does something wrong, the fall is bigger. We see that in a lot of business situations where the woman pays a bigger price than their counterparts do.

Speakers Who Get Results | Ellen Connelly Taaffe | Women Leaders

Women Leaders: There is the embedded view that women must do everything right. When they make a mistake, they pay a bigger price in a lot of business situations than their counterparts.


We can get into the glass cliff there. If there’s an impossible job and then the company says, “We’ll have a woman in there,” I don’t think anybody deliberately puts a woman in a position where she’s guaranteed to fail. That’s a subconscious thing. Maybe it’s like, “I’m not going to risk the career of that promising young man I know,” if it’s the men making the decision. “Here, let’s give a chance to the younger woman. It’s an impossible job.” That’s a whole other episode. Maybe we’ll talk about the glass cliff, you and I, at another time.

Talking a little bit about upbringing and cultural expectations, that’s also part of it. I’d like to move on to the question of why women struggle for self-promotion. This is something that I notice. I am a presentation skills trainer and a public speaker. I work with public speakers. I help very smart, interesting people like you get out there and speak. When I talk to conference organizers, I say, “Why do you have 95% men?” Very often the answer around the world is, “We’d love to have more women but the women don’t raise their hands.” The women say, “I’m not ready yet.” Can you address that?

You mentioned it’s not intended but it’s subconscious. Those early messages, both that girls have and bring into as they become women and men have too, is this expectation of being other-oriented and not having too big of an ego. That is more accepted in guys. We almost expect it. Women are self-effacing like, “Elizabeth, I love your jacket.” “This old thing?” It’s our language even in accepting part of the girl code and discounting ourselves. For example, in my family, it’s very much a view of, “Don’t be a braggart.” That could be a familial thing but I also think particularly the penalty for women, bragging is higher. It’s something we learned that could hurt us in relationships. We then get into the workplace and are not self-promoting or advocating for ourselves.

Believe me, from managing so many people over my career, the men are coming in and asking for jobs like the corner office, the big project, and everything before they’re ready. We learn that it feels uncomfortable. We don’t get used to it. We have to shift from the negative sides of self-promotion into normal career planning that is very collaborative. If our bosses don’t know what we want or what we have accomplished, they’re not able to do their job or advocate for us either. It’s a real mindset shift but it’s helpful to think back to what messages we have about self-promotion.

If bosses don’t know what women want or what they have accomplished, they cannot do their job well or advocate for them. Share on X

I talk often about, “Did you ask or did you just hint?” I was trained to not ask directly because it’s selfish. “Don’t make the direct ask. Mention that you would like to have something done and then hopefully, someone will say, ‘I’ll do that,’” which rarely works. That was one of the difficult lessons I had to learn as a boss when I founded an opera company. Finally, my assistant said, “Just tell me.” She was Austrian so she had the Austrian-German way of speaking, which is, “Don’t use all these extra words. Just say it,” but she said, “It’s so much easier if you tell me directly what you want.” It blew my mind. I realized, “I apologize to all the people before that to whom I was unclear because I was hinting rather than asking.”

That’s what people want. In the book, I have these five strategies that make us successful but also can become perilous and this is one of them that I call patiently performing. It’s as if we think if we have to ask for it, it’s not as good and we’re missing out but for a while, it works for us as bosses. We’re not the squeaky wheel. That’s a good thing for a boss for a while but after a while, we could get frustrated as people pass us by.

Talk to us about this framework because I love this. I was reading through all the earlier chapters talking about the mistake saying, “Yes, I made that mistake,” and then I got to the chapters, “What do you do about it?” I said, “Hallelujah. What do I do about it?” Tell me what the four-part framework is. 

In patiently performing, I have a framework called SIGN. I named it that way because we have to signal or give a sign to others of what we want. It’s a way to think through the important conversations you need to have or a person needs to have, particularly with their boss, who is likely the person who’s going to be putting forth something that advocates for you. The first one, the S stands for Stake. It’s getting in touch with what’s at stake for you in your career. What can you gain or what could you lose by staying in this patiently performing mode? What’s your why here? It might be, “I want to be a CMO one day or be able to send my kids to college. I want a career here. I want to stay here,” whatever that is for you, getting in touch with that.

I is Intention. This is all about preparing yourself for a meeting to talk about this. It’s like, “My intention is I want to be crystal clear on my goals. Even though this is hard for me, I want to be courageous in this moment.” It’s a way of determining the mindset that I want to have when I go into this meeting and how I want to show up. The G is what are my Goals? This is a focus on the short-term goal like, “In this meeting, I want to share what I’ve accomplished over the last year and get feedback on how I’m tracking.” It may not be a longer-term goal like, “I want whatever it is you want but for the moment for this meeting,” because you’re going to have multiple conversations or you should.

What’s the short-term goal? It could be as easy as “I want to flag my ambitions.” A lot of times, if we don’t speak up, we could be seen as less ambitious than we are but we have this rule, “I can’t ask for it.” Be clear on, “What is the goal of this interaction with my boss or whoever the person is that I’m meeting?” It’s the negotiables. “What do I want to walk away with?” For example, if my goal was to understand and get feedback on my eligibility or timing for a promotion, negotiables could be what’s the timing but it could be a project that you want. We think of the things we negotiate for our compensation but it’s also what projects we get or what kind of training. “Can I go to Elizabeth’s course on Speaker Who Gets Results? Can I get a mentor?” What are the things that will help you get to your longer-term goal? It’s about, “I’d like to be able to do this.” It’s a negotiation too. That’s what SIGN is, Stakes, Intention, Goals, and Negotiables. It’s a whole chapter.

Speakers Who Get Results | Ellen Connelly Taaffe | Women Leaders

Women Leaders: If women don’t speak up, they’d be seen as less ambitious. They must learn how to negotiate with their bosses and tell them what they want to walk away with.


I would add an S, which is Speak up. One of the things I’ve often thought about is I often promote approach communication as language. I was trained to work in multiple languages and I have often had to give presentations in not my first language. In terms of sometimes called men’s language and women’s language, I think of it as single-focused individualistic people, who are often women in corporate careers. You have to be that way to rise in the structure that was built for single-focused people.

The multi-focused people, traditionally women but not always, see the world in a web of relationships. If we grow up as girls and are taught to see the world in a web of relationships, then that’s where it’s important to fit in. I should ask some of the Japanese men that I know to say, “It’s important to fit in but then how’s your ambition within that,” now that I’m thinking about it. If you think of it as relational thinkers, then the importance of fitting in becomes easy to understand. I’m curious if you have run across that.

I see it in two different ways. It is prioritizing others and that’s a good thing. We need more of that in our world. It’s when it becomes too uneven in our needs and who we are that aren’t part of the equation. I’m relating it to two of these strategies that become perilous and one that is eager to please, which is all about being other-oriented. We have to also take care of ourselves and set boundaries. Another one is all about fitting in. It’s more of when we trade off our authenticity or our other-oriented where we fit in for 6 months or 1 year into a company and think, “I haven’t shown my real self that they hire the real person and all that.” It’s finding this balance.

I agree with you. They are connected. I like how you have connected those. We have to figure out what are the benefits of doing that but also what are the costs to us. The cost in that combination is our authenticity like, “What about me? What about the needs?” Sometimes, it’s the more we can take our other-orientation and it doesn’t mean we have to always go with that but maybe sometimes the bigger way to take care of others is by being straightforward and also having a balance in the relationship. It’s so interesting the relational thing that you bring up.

Let’s go back to individualistic and relational, which is a term from couples counseling. I learned about this from a woman who’s a marriage counselor. I went, “Bingo.” She has given me permission to use her material because she doesn’t work in business, so lucky me. Ellen Taaffe, it’s been so wonderful to have you here. I’d like to have you leave us with one thought out of all the many things that you’ve said. It’s a great book. Go get this book. How can we find the balance between standing in our authenticity and yet not erasing ourselves from the picture?

My final thought would be about tapping into courage. In every female-oriented conference, podcast, or article, it’s all about finding confidence. Confidence is the outcome. We need the courage to stand up for how we want to stand out, stand up, or set boundaries and balance out other relational orientations by having the courage to do that. Often when we have strong relationships, they can withstand our disagreement, saying no, or setting a boundary. We have to have the courage to open the mirrored door to move forward into action and it’s all about courage.

Strong relationships can withstand disagreements or serious boundaries. We must have the courage to open the mirror door to move forward into action. Share on X

Ellen Connelly Taaffe, I’m so glad we made this happen. Let’s keep this conversation going and we’ll keep talking about that. I’m going to show up at your doorstep and say, “Let’s keep talking about this.”

It sounds good. As we talked, there are so many different things like glass cliff or other things that we could talk about. Thank you so much for having me, Elizabeth.

Thank you, Ellen. You have a wonderful rest of your day. If you enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to whatever platform you’re using and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. That’s the one that people track. It would have more people read to the amazing Ellen Connelly Taaffe. I’ll see you on the next one.


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About Ellen Connelly Taaffe

Speakers Who Get Results | Ellen Connelly Taaffe | Women LeadersEllen Connelly Taaffe is a Clinical Associate Professor at the Kellogg School of Management, where she teaches Personal Leadership Insights and is the Director of Women’s Leadership Programming. Ellen designs and delivers the Kellogg Women’s Leadership Seminar series, the signature program for female students across Kellogg’s Full-time, Evening/Weekend, and Executive MBA programs. Outside of Kellogg, Ellen serves as an independent board director for two public and one private company boards, where she is a Lead Director, Vice Chair, and chairs one Nominating and Governance Committees and one Compensation Committee and serves as a member of two audit committees.

Ellen also runs a leadership advisory consulting, speaking, and coaching business and is a TEDx speaker. She shares her insights on leadership, careers, and advancing women and inclusion through her writing and speaking in media like Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Business Insider, Washington Post, Bloomberg, and Kellogg Insight.

Prior to her academic, governance, and coaching career, Ellen spent 25 years with Fortune 500 companies holding the top brand management post at divisions of PepsiCo, Royal Caribbean, and Whirlpool Corporation. She built world-class brands, led multi-billion-dollar portfolios with P&L responsibility, launched new businesses, led turnarounds, and merged businesses and cultures post-acquisition. In her book, The Mirrored Door: Break Through the Hidden Barrier that Locks Successful Women in Place (October 10, 2023 / Page Two), Ellen uses her vast experience to help women understand and navigate through internal and external obstacles to create the future career they desire.