All Articles Leadership Workforce Female leaders are hiding in plain sight. Here's how to help them shine

Female leaders are hiding in plain sight. Here’s how to help them shine

Female leaders are often hidden in plain sight. Joel Garfinkle provides tips on uncovering this hidden talent.

6 min read


women leaders

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Women are some of the most overlooked and undervalued leaders in today’s workplace. This has led to a situation where female leaders are often hiding in plain sight, with their contributions and achievements going unrecognized and unrewarded. In my corporate training program “Release Untapped Potential of Your Underutilized Leaders,” I discuss how to engage, empower and leverage the women in your organization. By using this program, you identify your hidden leaders and bring them into the spotlight. 

Joel Garfinkle

You need to help your female leaders so they can: 

1. Stand out

When people in your organization gather to share ideas, whether in small teams or large groups, who tends to speak up? Traditional leadership thinking tends to remember and reward those who speak early and often, and who are most assertive with their thoughts and opinions. Speaking up can be difficult for some of your female leaders, who may have been adopted a more understated style of communicating. Whether because of upbringing, cultural expectations, previous negative experiences or pure personality, many women choose not to wade into the forefront of discussions or challenge the opinions of others in a way that would further the visibility needed to advance their careers. What can you do to bridge this gap?

Work with them to uncover ways they can speak up and still feel productive and true to character. This might include having those who are uncertain in forums with strong personalities to ask questions. Recap thoughts and ask if they’re accurately replayed, ask questions that encourage extending the idea further, or for “expert level,” questions that will highlight gaps in solutions. Challenge your hidden female leaders to speak up at least once in meetings, in a way that works for them. Pre-plan or roleplay scenarios with them if necessary and offer support and encouragement to cement the habit. 

2. Get noticed

It’s easy to fall into the idea that if we do good work, the work will speak for itself. It’s a prevalent corporate fantasy — the success we achieve will always be recognized and rewarded. Unfortunately, that’s not always true. Women, especially, can suffer because they tend to more fully absorb the notion that you should never “toot your own horn” and make sure people know about your accomplishments. Studies also show that the collaborative leadership style embodied by many women means that they may be more likely to “give their success away.” In the process of highlighting the success of the team, for example, they will be more likely to downplay or transfer the positive role they had in an achievement. What can you do to make sure they’re recognized for great work?

Be sure that you sing their praises to others, knowing that your hidden female leaders are less likely to self-advocate and may need a little extra help to be highlighted. Coach them to be aware of the tendency to downplay their successes or their role in them. Challenge your women leaders to “own” some of the achievement. You may even need to go so far as to “ban” phrases or dialogue where they make a task or project seem easier than it actually was, or attribute success entirely to others, favorable circumstances or luck. 

3. Gain respect

Those who have a tendency to be understated in meetings or not take full credit for their efforts as discussed above, may need a bit of a push to build the reputation and respect required to succeed. Women in many corporate situations are often required to walk a fine line between being assertive enough to get results and congenial enough to seem approachable and amenable. You may have noticed women frequently being described as either “too soft” or “too cold.” There seems to be a fine edge to balance. How can you help build a positive perception that isn’t so rigidly defined?

Advocate for your hidden female leaders and make sure that senior executives know of the great work they’re doing, much like you can and should for other underrated talent. Opportunities come to those who are known to higher ups, so make sure your skilled female employees are on the radar. You can also help change the culture but taking every opportunity to highlight that there are many management styles and a myriad of ways to achieve great results. You can advocate for changing the lens on leadership and reap the proven rewards that come to companies with diverse executives.

4. Get ahead

Once you’ve identified those hidden female leaders in your midst, what next? In addition to advocating for those who need to build a positive perception and better visibility, your hidden leaders are going to need occasions to prove their talents to those with influence. How will you make sure these stars get a chance to shine?

Make sure that your hidden talent are known by as many people around the table as possible, and ensure their names are put forward whenever opportunities arise. Are they being considered? Discussed? Women in many organizations face a challenge where opportunities are not even offered, because those higher up assume they wouldn’t want or couldn’t handle it. Work to ensure that your hidden talent always get the chance to accept or decline a challenge on their own without any kind of unfair oversight.

How will you make sure your hidden stars get a chance to shine? What will you need to do in your organization to give women the right visibility and the right opportunities, within a framework that will allow them to succeed. There is no magic bullet or easy way to achieve diverse leadership, but you’ve already taken the first step of identifying hidden talent. Now, make a plan on how to change both their public perception and your company’s thoughts on good leadership.


Executive coach Joel Garfinkle provides executive coaching to help companies build a pipeline of leaders who can excel at the management level, and he is the author of 11 books, including “Executive Presence: Step Into Your Power, Convey Confidence, & Lead With Conviction.” Subscribe to his Fulfillment at Work Newsletter or view his video library of more than 200 easily actionable, inspirational, two-minute video clips by subscribing to his YouTube channel.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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