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It’s time to focus on talent rather than gender

Published 18 December 2021 in Magazine

Diversity and inclusion programs are booming, but don’t always produce the required results. Here are four ways to make them work. 


Diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs have been a booming field within organizational management for the past decade, particularly in gender-related initiatives, which are a big business priority across geographies. In general, these programs focus on increasing female representation in leadership roles are driven by: 

  1. External societal pressures, the fear of reputational damage or losing clients, for example. 
  2. Social fairness and justice, perhaps a genuine desire to increase equity and drive progress in society. 
  3. The so-called business case, the belief that having more balanced leadership teams, or more women in leadership roles, will boost organizational effectiveness metrics, or lead to an inherent return on investment.

These motives are not mutually exclusive and may coexist, even though the public perception often assumes that focusing on one implies disregarding or neglecting the others.

Failing to articulate the why of your gender-diversity program is obviously problematic, not least because if you don’t know where you are going, any road may take you there. But, regardless of the underlying motive for the gender-related D&I initiatives of organizations, there appear to be four recurrent errors that explain their general lack of success, and why, despite good intentions, there are very few salient examples of companies that have really driven systematic improvements in their efforts to not just balance the gender ratio in leadership – especially at the top – but also persuade others, both externally and internally, that these changes are meaningful and consequential.

Here are four practical issues to address if more women are to be helped to reach the top, as well as reducing the persistent and uncomfortable gap between the leaders we need, and the leaders we actually get (which I have documented in my book, Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? And how to fix it).

1. Focus on talent rather than gender

Many organizations equate leadership potential with a handful of personality traits, such as overconfidence and narcissism which are more likely to cause harm than benefit. Evidence shows, however, that the most effective leaders possess empathy, integrity, self-control, emotional intelligence, self-awareness and humility. These qualities are on average more likely to be present in women. By reconsidering who and what personality traits make good leaders, we will promote into leadership roles many competent woman – and men who don’t fit the stereotype – who have been overlooked in the past without the need for affirmative action.

Since women are, on average, more likely to display most of the qualities that improve leadership talent (e.g., empathy, integrity, self-control, EQ, self-awareness, and humility), the best gender D&I intervention would be to focus on what constitutes talent rather than gender. By focusing on hiring leaders with empathy and integrity, rather than being fixated on quotas, we would not only ensure that more women get to the top, but also that the average quality of our leaders improves.

In contrast, focusing on gender tends to perpetuate the inaccurate stereotypes about women being less capable leaders than men, or the notion that affirmative action is necessary to help women become leaders. We need to challenge the myth of current leader selection as meritocratic, and understand that talent focused or merit-based leader selection is the best approach for helping more women into leadership roles. If we did this, we would not only end up with more women at the top, but also more women than men in leadership positions overall. 

2. Debias your performance measures 

Making leader selection more data-driven would be pointless unless objective and credible parameters are put in place to evaluate the performance of leaders. If not, even the best selection of leaders will be deemed flawed once talented candidates (male or female) are unfairly classified as poor performers once on the job.

Flawed, nepotistic, and subjective evaluations of leaders corrupt any attempts to improve the quality of leaders, as well as representing a big unspoken hurdle for women. In any system or organization, so long as the ruling elite or dominant in-group get to decide whether a leader is doing a good job or not, there will be limited progress from deploying accurate selection tools, such as science-based assessments or analytics.

The lesson for ethical and performance-oriented organizations is clear: shift from seeing leadership as a popularity contest, one based on managing up and fitting in with the ruling norms and status-quo, and examine the actual value that leaders add: how productive, engaged, demoralized, or alienated are their teams? What is the evidence that they are actually driving strategic KPIs? Are they adding or creating more value than they extract? All leader selection is fundamentally about predicting performance, but there’s no point in predicting sham measures of performance that capture the crooked or biased opinion of those in charge.

“Only those who do not seek power should be qualified to hold it”
- Plato

3. Stop wasting money on unconscious training 

It is unfortunate that organizations devote so much attention – and resources – to tackling implicit or unconscious biases, all under the assumption that making people aware of their gender biases will bring equity and fairness to our leadership selection. In fact, most biases are conscious rather than unconscious, and the focus of D&I interventions should be behaviors rather than thoughts or beliefs.

All of us are biased, since our brains are prewired for making rapid classifications of the world, including our fellow humans. Unlearning social stereotypes is neither feasible nor effective, especially compared to modelling civility, holding people accountable for inappropriate behaviors, or harnessing a culture of respect and tolerance. Instead of pointing the finger at people for their alleged unconscious biases (which, incidentally, will never be suppressed through an online learning course of psychology 101 power point slides), incentivize them to behave in prosocial and civilized ways, which by default includes sanctioning or punishing discriminatory, sexist, and abusive acts.

4. Stop asking women to behave like (incompetent) men 

Ever since Sheryl Sandberg popularized the idea that women’s underrepresentation in leadership roles is largely caused by their unwillingness to self-promote, show assertiveness, or “lean in”, gender-related D&I interventions have digressed to a misconception from the 1970s, namely that making women more confident, determined, or ambitious will fix the gender gap in leadership. In essence, suggestions like these are pointing the finger at women for not behaving like (incompetent) men. Clearly, the solution to a world led by overconfident fools is not to make the other half of the world overconfident, too.

When we blame people for not applying for a job just because they don’t meet any of the required qualifications, or not speak up in meetings because they have nothing to say, or not focus more on their own brand, agenda, and narcissistic delusions of success, we perpetuate the flawed current system of picking leaders on their ego rather than talent, focusing on style rather than substance, and overlooking the people (both male and female) with the best qualities for leadership talent, while selecting those who shine because of their dark side. Instead of Sandberg’s lean in” mantra, we should follow Plato’s advice: “Only those who do not seek power should be qualified to hold it”.

Following these four recommendations will do more to close the gap between the leaders we need, and those we actually get, than any alternative popular measure or approach. Ultimately, progress will always depend more on those organizations who lead the way, precisely by making their leadership selection efforts more data-driven. Leadership is always a force for change, an argument with the past or with tradition. Nobody is really a leader to keep things as they are. This is the main call to action, the moral and business imperative, for those with true leadership talent – those responsible for creating a better world and future.


Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is Professor of Business Psychology at Columbia University and at University College London. He is also Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup.



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