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Power, Ambition, Money, Failure: The 21st Century Taboos

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With women entering the workforce in numbers equal to or surpassing men, one would think that they are poised to become professional powerhouses. This is not the case. Women hit a plateau when it comes to leadership positions, holding on average just 18% of the leadership positions in nearly all industries, from 16% in film and TV to 18% in law and 21% in non-profits, according to the White House Project's November 2009 report. In some areas, such as the military and Fortune 500 CEOs, the numbers are much lower. Women of color fare even worse: Of the 15.7% of corporate officer positions in Fortune 500 companies that are held by women, just 1.7% are held by women of color.

Just recently, a GAO report revealed even more sobering news for anyone who follows women's leadership, finding that women made almost no progress in moving into management positions from 2000 to 2007, the latest year that figures are available.

The numbers are especially troubling given that women are now earning the majority of doctoral degrees awarded in the U.S., and women are enrolling in colleges and universities and graduating from all types of programs in numbers that are equal to, or more than, men.

Why aren't women succeeding in the numbers that they'd like? We all know the traditional reasons that women have a hard time breaking through, like longstanding discrimination and cultural biases that lead high-ranking men to choose colleagues that look like them. The challenges that face women who off-ramp, to raise their children or care for family members, and then face suspicious and inflexible employers when they seek to return, have been well documented, as well.

But there's also another factor at play. These are the 21st century "taboos" that women don't like to talk about or to admit they need help with, topics such as power, ambition, money and failure. As a result many women manage their careers differently from many of their male colleagues.

In the areas of power and ambition, when it comes to getting noticed and promoted, too often women believe that if they do their job well their competence will be duly recognized and justly rewarded. As a consequence they are less likely to talk themselves up among their colleagues. In contrast, men are more likely to claim credit for their ideas in public settings and hawk their accomplishments to anyone and everyone.

Many ambitious men are looking for their next opportunity from the minute they enter the workforce, and they more often view a current assignment in terms of where it will get them down the road. As Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson found in their new book, The Female Vision: Women's Real Power at Work, many women are more focused on the day-to-day quality of their current experience. As a result, the men who have been strategizing about how to climb the career ladder often beat them to the punch.

Likewise, many men come to the job with an abundance of self-confidence, believing they are equipped to handle any task that presents itself (whether or not they actually know how). Consequently, they are more likely to volunteer for tough assignments and leadership roles.

Due to a lack of self-confidence or a more ambivalent relationship to power, many women wait to be asked before expressing an interest in a promotion and hesitate to volunteer for a risky task that can prove their value if successful. Clinical psychologists Jane Shure and Beth Weinstock, meanwhile, have written about women's "Inner Critic", that internal voice that thwarts spontaneity, dampens creativity and holds some women hostage to anxiety.

When they do get promoted, women often make less than their male peers in the same or comparable jobs. Whether it's for a multimillion-dollar business deal, a lease on office space or a salary, successful negotiations are key to advancement. New data shows that at least some of the wage disparity between men and women is because women do not negotiate effectively for salary, job titles and benefits when they start a new job, and don't negotiate for salary increases as they climb the career ladder, forgoing hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a career and potentially making them less attractive for the top echelons of management.

As for failure, too often women personalize it, blaming themselves when they don't achieve to their own expectations, instead of seeking out objective reasons for where things went wrong and learning from them. Men tend to be more resilient in the face of failure, quickly bouncing back and moving on. This is perhaps due to their years playing team sports or military service; new research has linked a background in competitive sports with women who have made it to upper leadership ranks in business.

Emerging scholarly research has shown that very different management styles -- more democratic, more optimistic, more empowering -- that are exhibited by many women can be just as effective as the more hierarchical approach used by many men, but we're a long way from women being in charge. The question remains. How can we get women to unleash the leadership potential we know they possess? So for at least as long as men continue to control the move up the ladder, women will need to confront these taboos head on. Leadership is not just earned, it can also be learned.

Renowned civil rights attorney Kathryn Kolbert is the director of Barnard College's Athena Center for Leadership Studies, which recently launched the Athena Leadership Lab, professional development courses designed to teach women the practical elements of leadership. In 1992, Kolbert argued Planned Parenthood v. Casey before the U.S. Supreme Court, the case that, in part, reaffirmed Roe v. Wade.