Women: an untapped talent

Sep 10 2008 by Myra White Print This Article

In recent years much has been written about the war for talent and the problems of retaining top talent. Despite this concern with talent, organizations often fail to fully capitalize on an important source of talent, namely the women they already employ.

In most organizations there are highly talented women who have been passed over for upper-level positions because the talents they bring to the workplace are not valued. To tap into this talent, organizations need to discard the old male models of what top talent should be like and recognize that there are other ways to lead at the top.

There is no doubt that women have made great strides in the workplace in the past 50 years. Women who seek entry level managerial and professional positions now have many of the same opportunities as their male counterparts. This is in contrast to what happened to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the current US Supreme Court justice. When she graduated from law school in 1959 at the top of her class, law firms refused to hire her because she was a woman.

In recent years women have also had increasing opportunities to advance to higher level positions within organizations, but they still are having trouble climbing to the top-most positions. One reason is that women continue to be viewed as less talented than their male counterparts. Current studies consistently find that both men and women rate women as less competent than men who have similar or even lower levels of experience and expertise.

A recent example of the problem talented women face is provided by the response to John McCain picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. Even though Sarah Palin has more executive experience than any of the other candidates, many media commentators immediately questioned her competence to lead the country if something happened to John McCain.

When women attempt to overcome this belief that they are less competent than men by mimicking male leadership behaviors, they encounter even more resistance. Studies find that women who engage in assertive and self-promotional behaviors evoke strong negative reactions in both men and women. Moreover, these negative reactions become even stronger when women try to lead in areas dominated by men.

Even worse for women is the fact that if they instead act more passively in an attempt to be more palatable, they are then considered to not be competent enough for leadership positions. Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and Sarah Palin's nomination have both illustrated the strong negative reactions that women evoke when they dare to aspire to leadership positions typically held by men. Both have been subjected to a type of harsh criticism that one rarely sees leveled at men. Moreover, this criticism frequently spills over into personal realms that have nothing to do with their capacity to lead.

One of the major criticisms of Hillary Clinton was that she wasn't likeable. In a small informal poll that I conducted one day in which I asked everyone I met, including colleagues, swimmers at the pool and various strangers, why people didn't like Hillary Clinton, common responses were: she is self-centered, acerbic, and bossy. One person even commented that her staying with Bill Clinton after his affair with Monica Lewinsky was phony and didn't fit with who she is.

Sarah Palin received equally emotional laden criticism when she was chosen by John McCain as his running mate. Many television commentators expressed outrage and questioned his judgment. Media coverage continues to focus on parts of her life that have nothing to do with her capacity to lead.

A recent piece on an ABC internet news site showed a college-age Sarah Palin sitting on a bed wearing cut-off blue jeans and looking like the "beauty queen" she once was with the headline: "Palin Switched Colleges 6 Times in 6 Years." In a You Tube video, Bill Maher, a political commentator, refers to her as a stewardess, a label that in American culture epitomizes classic negative stereotypes about women.

While many argue that gender discrimination lies at the core of this failure to recognize and acknowledge the talent that women bring to the workplace, the problem is more complex. The real source may lie in the fact that models of effective leaders are based on men and the types of talents that they bring to such positions. In order to fully tap into the talents that women bring to the workplace, ideas about leadership need to be reexamined.

Women may be equally effective as leaders even though they don't always lead in the same way as men. As more and more US companies report massive losses, organizations may benefit by developing new models of what makes a great leader that aren't based solely on how men lead.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.

Older Comments

I wholeheartedly agree with article. We have been working on trying to change culture in large organisations for many years and yet nothing seems to change in reality. A wider range fo accepted Leadership Styles need to be accepted. Implicit assumptions are being made all the itme by men and women. Women at the top who have become the 'bloke in the skirt' are often the biggest barrier to women who are attmepting to succeed. If an organisation is brave enough this unconscious bias can be dealt with in appropriate and effective ways. For more information on our soon to be released blog please leave your detials at www.eve-olution.net

Tracey Carr London

I wonder how many men have clicked through to this article, as they are the required audience? Sadly I feel that because of the issues outlined here the dialog between men and women that needs to occur to get these ideas of the ground may be off to a false start. A refreshing article.


I fully agree with the author's position. I would nuance this view however by staying that women also have a key part to play in inventing and promoting a management style which fits them, without falling into either a maternal or male management stereotypes. Which probably explains why some studies have shown that many employees (women more than men) prefer to have men rather than women managing them. This is perhaps only a matter of time. Men have had many years head start after all. We will know we have reached the tipping point once people stop describing female management style by using similies of male management or motherhood (i.e. feminine managment is...not...feminine management is like...)


I don't agree with this article. For a start, a large amount of attacks, perhaps even the majority, were made by liberal women, magazines aimed for women and designed by women were filled with scandals and even down right lies about her. As for an old-fashioned male model, what, you mean hard work? Those who stay at work longer are going to become more experienced and more skilfull at their job and therefore be justly promoted. Men work longer hours than women on average particularly later on in life so this is bound to happen. Taking away this 'model' is like enforcing positive-discrimination. Yes workplaces should be more flexible in respect to hours, but that doesn't mean people who have put more effort into should be ignored simply cause women don't like working as long. Everytime men make gains the news puts it in a negative light, everytime women make gains, praise is heard. Women need to stop blaming men and simply figure out how to optimize their work effort based on their choices. People like Sarah Palin prove this is possible.

Shrimrah ChCh

I agree absolutely with the suggestion that it's women's styles of leadership which may not be appreciated - even though the very top corporate boards with more women (and more general diversity) perform better than other boards. (Look at the Fortune 100 evidence.)

The root of the problem maqy be that, for the men who usually make promotion decisions, recognising their partisanship is rather too close to home (literally) to acknowledge.

But in the meantime we may I'd suggest suppose that corporate and governance bodies which lack a fair ratio of men and women are probably just not very good.

The failure to value different sorts of leadership styles and contributions says a lot about the competence or otherwise of those who so fail, doesn't it?

Hilary B www.hilaryburrage.com

Hilary Burrage U.K.