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Law Practice Today

May 2024

Cutting Down Tall Poppy Syndrome

Michele A Powers, Paulette Brown, and Emily Logan Stedman


  • Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) occurs when people—most often ambitious women—are belittled or cut down because of their success and ambition.
  • TPS is an insidious unconscious bias impacting women’s productivity and mental health both in the workplace and beyond.
  • TPS can have an even more profound effect on women of color.
Cutting Down Tall Poppy Syndrome

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You have likely experienced or witnessed Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) and not been aware that it is a prevalent form of gender bias that penalizes successful, ambitious women by “cutting them down to size.” As we discussed in the recent ABA Women Rainmakers webinar, almost 90% of women in a 2023 worldwide study reported experiencing TPS in the workplace. The webinar’s personal examples of TPS in the legal profession demonstrate a significant impact on women’s mental health, productivity, and success throughout women lawyer’s legal careers. Further, the 2023 TPS study also provides eye-opening statistics on TPS’s impacts in organizations wanting to retain and advance their star female talent.

This article is a follow-up on our Women Rainmaker’s webinar to bring further awareness to TPS and the tendency humans have to cut down ambitious women. Below, we unpack what Tall Poppy Syndrome is, how it is done, and who usually does the “cutting” and provide examples of how it shows up for women experiencing its impacts in the legal profession. We then give you solutions for women’s individual support along with, importantly, what legal organizations can do to bring awareness to this generally unknown and unnamed cultural gender bias that is likely impacting their goals of high performance, collaboration, and well-being. 

Naming It: What Is Tall Poppy Syndrome?

Tall Poppy Syndrome occurs when people—most often ambitious women—are bullied and belittled, resented, disliked, criticized, or cut down for being “too much” because of their success and ambition. Women of color can have their Tall Poppy Syndrome experience exacerbated because of “low expectations” imposed upon them. It is a form of unconscious gender bias with deep roots in our historic patriarchal culture. The name Tall Poppy Syndrome comes from agriculture. Poppy farmers crave uniformity. In a field of poppies, if one flower grows too tall, it is cut down to size—to fit in, alongside all the other poppies.

TPS names this prevalent unconscious bias we have and experience against women who dare to rise above their peers and the expectations that have been set for them and excel in their profession. The “cutting down” of a Tall Poppy woman aims to remind her of her place; that she does not have a right to the increased light and space (i.e., resources, recognition, pay, a voice, etc.) she seeks to occupy.

As many of us are increasingly aware, the presence of unconscious bias is a shared human condition—we all have them and most of us experience them from others. The naming of and awareness of an unconscious bias—bringing it to light—is a first step in healing and overcoming its impacts. It is time to name and bring to light the existence and prevalence of Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Within the legal profession women’s success is often doubted and subjected to increased scrutiny. As a woman displays ambition, as she becomes more successful, she is more likely to face criticism, jealousy, being disliked, and targeted resentment. These biases come from those senior to the Tall Poppy, as well as from her peers and even her direct reports.

As explained below, TPS is an insidious unconscious bias impacting women’s productivity and mental health both in the workplace and beyond. It is a substantive factor in women leaving an employer or the workforce all together. There is a recognized retention problem for women lawyers within the legal profession. Tall Poppy Syndrome holds women back through decreased engagement and the feeling that they simply cannot “do success right” without suffering consequences. The proverbial “double bind.” It creates yet another obstacle for women aiming to break the glass ceiling—a persisting effort and need within the legal profession.

For women of color, it is a triple whammy. In the 2006 ABA report Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms, which unfortunately in 2024 continues to be cited to demonstrate the adverse experiences of women of color and the layers of barriers that they continue to face. They are “cut to size” by a failure to provide the same opportunities as their peers.

The experiences that women of color reported in 2006 are strikingly similar to those reported in the 2020 ABA report Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles and Heartaches of Achieving Long Term Careers of Women of Color. When expectations for women of color are lower because of bias, they are discouraged from achieving their full potential. As evidence, 57% of women of color reported that they had been confused for custodial, administrative, or courtroom staff, as compared to 7% of white men.

Now that it has a name, what is the science supporting how TPS shows up, who likely is doing the cutting, and why? What are its detrimental impacts?

The Data: 2023 Tallest Poppy Study

In early 2023, Dr. Rumeet Billan the founder and CEO of Women of Influence, set out to collect data on Tall Poppy Syndrome. Dr. Billan surveyed more than 4,710 women from around the world and within a variety of professional settings. Her findings culminated in The Tallest Poppy 2023 study. The 2023 study demonstrates TPS’s significant impacts on women professionals both individually and as integral contributors to organizational success.

Of those surveyed, 86.8% reported that at one point or another they experienced workplace hostility “because of their success or achievements,” including being “penalized and/or ostracized.” Well over half the women respondents reported “being undermined or excluded” (70.7%), “experiencing microaggressions and belittling” (64.7%), and “having their achievements downplayed (77%).” The study did not distinguish the experiences of women of color. Based on previous studies that have been conducted, it is safe to surmise that the percentage of those negative experiences would have increased for women of color.

These women experienced Tall Poppy Syndrome at every stage of their carriers. The perpetrators were likely to be men and came from “all levels of seniority,” including co-workers, clients, managers, and executives. A majority of TPS came from those in positions of power over the women experiencing TPS—namely,their executive leaders and managers along with clients and suppliers. Importantly, it is not just men that impose this bias on women. Women in all positions of authority also cut down other women. Women were most likely to experience TPS from women who were their friends, peers, or direct reports.

The biggest factors triggering perpetrators to cut down Tall Poppies are thought to be jealousy or envy (77.5%), insecurity or a lack of confidence (72.7%), and sexism or gender stereotypes (e.g., women should be humble and “likeable”) (74.0%). In addition, 62.8% attributed perpetrators’ acts to the “culture of the organization” supporting their biased behavior explaining “[l]eadership allows it to happen.”

The Experience of TPS  

The experience of Tall Poppy Syndrome varies widely. However, most Tall Poppies experience it overtly, from leadership, clients, colleagues, coworkers, and friends. What does it look like?

  • Being left out of meetings;
  • Being ignored;
  • Having others undermine achievements, even dismissing them;
  • Seeing others take credit for work;
  • Having impossible higher standards and expectations placed on what is required to succeed;
  • Having accomplishments belittled, conditioned, or tied to others’ achievements; and/or
  • Facing overt bullying, condemnation, or ridicule for achievements or behavior that is deemed unacceptable, unlikeable, “too much,” or not feminine.

Many Tall Poppies have also internalized the TPS bias over time and engage in self-limiting behaviors. This can look or feel like:

  • Downplaying your successes;
  • Quieting your voice and lessening how and when you speak up;
  • Forcing yourself into a smaller, seemingly more accepted mold;
  • Believing you will be penalized if you are perceived as too ambitious at work;
  • Wondering if you are too much and worrying that you are being too aggressive;
  • Fearing being seen as weak or not tough enough and clinging to impossible standards of perfectionism; and/or
  • Being agreeable, smiling, and going along with what others want to the point of not having an opinion.

The Impacts of TPS on Well-Being and Organizational Culture

The impacts of Tall Poppy Syndrome are deep and concerning on both an individual and organizational level. TPS causes women to lose self-confidence and increase self-doubt. Women’s self-talk becomes more negative, and they increasingly isolate and cut themselves off at work.

Under TPS, women feel they are in an impossible double bind of not being able to find the “Goldilocks” manner (just the right fit) for acceptable behavior that allows acceptance of their professional ambitions and goals. This can be even more pronounced for lawyer mothers as they navigate the conflicting cultural bias requirements around care of children and a demanding successful legal practice. Overall, when women are subjected to TPS, their mental health takes a significant hit, resulting in increased stress and accelerated rates of burnout.

Where a culture of TPS is encouraged or allowed by an organization and its leaders there is a measurable impact on the bottom line. A solid 75% of women experiencing TPS said that being “cut down” by others impacted their productivity and trust in co-workers. With TPS, women are more likely to disengage and feel a heightened sense of imposter syndrome. In fact, a full 60.5% of women felt they would be penalized if they were perceived as ambitious at work. Over half the women surveyed said they left their previous job when cut down too far or too persistently. What remains in an organization are the cutters and low performers.

Given the predominance of TPS, if you have been fortunate enough to escape its direct impacts you have likely witnessed its impact and effect. In the TPS 2023 study, 77.8 % of respondents said they had observed TPS in their workplace. Such an observation on its own can be unnerving and enough to impact the witness’s behavior, overall stress levels, and mental health.

Thus, an organizational culture that allows TPS will experience low trust in colleagues with individuals masking their true opinions and vulnerabilities. A TPS culture leads to increased negative competition and siloing of individuals. Generally, collaboration and productive communication will be difficult, resulting in duplication of effort and reductions in team effectiveness. Overall, organizational well-being is impacted, as is the bottom line.

Call to Action

Given the metrics presented by The Tallest Poppy 2023 study, it is imperative within the legal community that both individuals and organizations increase awareness of Tall Poppy Syndrome and take concrete steps to combat it. Here are some ways to step into action.


  1. Learn to recognize and name Tall Poppy Syndrome. Tall Poppy Syndrome exists, and it must be acknowledged. Pay attention to where you see it showing up. Do you unconsciously cut down others? We all have unconscious biases, many that appear against our own interests. Where do you see TPS playing out in your organization or peer circles?
  2. Recognize that women’s initiatives sometimes ignore women of color. There should be a resistance to the notion that in all instances gender comes first and race and ethnicity is a distraction to the overall promotion and advancement of women. Using evidence-based data, (e.g., white women earn 77% of what men earn and Hispanic/Latina women earn 53%) ensure that the experiences of women of color are not ignored.
  3. Call TPS out when you see it. If you can safely call out TPS without impacting your position, do so when you see it. Especially if you are established in your career and hold a position of authority, your unwillingness to remain silent will influence others’ behavior positively. For those with more junior roles, remember that TPS tends to show up with power differentials, so use your discernment before using your voice. If all you can do is name TPS for yourself or share the experience or insight with a trusted confidant, then know that is a step in the right direction.
  4. Have compassion and understanding for yourself and other Tall Poppies. Be kind to and support one another (and yourself). Acknowledge the impacts of TPS and your experience. Understand that often we have internalized TPS and are holding ourselves back through fear, wanting to avoid conflict, or the desire to be liked. Build communities of trust within the workplace and beyond where you can safely celebrate your success and gain allies who will collectively promote everyone’s ambitions.
  5. Initially (at least) give perpetrators of TPS the benefit of the doubt while holding them to account. Most are unaware of TPS, its name, and its impact given its roots in an unconscious gender bias. Treat these individuals with respect in any conversations naming their behaviors and raising their awareness. Shaming anyone is not productive and can backfire. Acknowledge that TPS is pervasive and seek organizational support with raising awareness and ensuring zero tolerance.
  6. Practice speaking up for yourself and for others. Speak your ambitions out loud. Let people know when you need some extra support or comfort. Lead by example—taking care of yourself, vouching for your own achievements, and celebrating others’ successes.
  7. Champion other women. Raise your expectations of the women around you. Let them know you see their accomplishments, potential, and brilliance. Create the supportive environment you need to thrive.
  8. Consider retaining an executive coach. If you are uncertain of how to address TPS and its impacts on your own, you are not alone. When you are used to staying small or not using your voice, it can be difficult to speak up. A coach can help you determine how best to proceed given your current professional environment and inner narratives. Coaching can be enormously helpful in assisting individuals to find their voice and know they belong at the table and in the conversation.
  9. When all else fails, seek employment in a healthy organization. Sometimes we are not in the right place for our best success. There are many legal organizations and departments that recognize and celebrate strong women. Find them. Join them.


Of course, the responsibility to identify and eliminate Tall Poppy Syndrome does not just fall on individuals. It is a systemic issue, and legal organizations need to address TPS and its deleterious cultural impacts.

  1. Train talent about Tall Poppy Syndrome. Raise awareness around TPS including its prevalence and its indicators. Make TPS an integral part of unconscious bias training curriculums.
  2. Understand that women of color may experience TPS “cutting” that is different than their peers and collectively they are not a monolith. Organizations should incorporate a structure that addresses the intersectionality of gender and diversity. Recognize that there are complexities and lived experiences that should not be ignored.
  3. Create a system of accountability and zero tolerance. Make it clear that Tall Poppy Syndrome is unacceptable behavior. Develop metrics around what it is, how it shows up, how to identify it, and specific behaviors that will not be tolerated. Educate everyone on the standard.
  4. Add TPS to existing reporting systems. Establish a mechanism for women to report their experiences of TPS safely and confidentially. Currently only 20% of women who reported being “cut down” to their employers receive any kind of positive, supportive response. Legal organizations cannot afford to silence or sweep these reports under the rug.
  5. Celebrate everyone’s wins. This requires creating a culture where it is safe for everyone to succeed and safe to celebrate everyone’s achievements. Promote and encourage celebrating wins, awards, and accolades from everyone at all levels. Get firm leadership involved.
  6. Ensure a culture of transparency. A policy of transparency around opportunities and requirements for promotions, succession planning, and salary metrics that openly demonstrate fair and equitable standards will help diminish the presence of TPS in a culture. Allowing everyone to understand how decisions are made and ensuring that policies are consistently applied to everyone forms a foundation of trust in leadership and the intent for all to be supported in their success.  


If you have experienced Tall Poppy Syndrome, you are not alone. In our Women Rainmakers presentation, it became abundantly clear that many in the audience had experienced this bias and that many did not have a term for it. So, let’s call it what it is: Tall Poppy Syndrome—and let’s act, starting now, to identify and call it out, making our workplaces more accepting for and supportive of ambitious women along the way.

The ABA’s Women Rainmakers Committee has free resources, including a video recording of our March 20, 2024, webinar discussing Tall Poppy Syndrome in more depth.