Posted by: julesejones | September 20, 2016

Women in Power: If Not Experts, Then What?


While reading chapter 3 in Wilson, I couldn’t help but think about men and women and power. Wilson (2004) was describing an experience she had when she was called as a witness for her knowledge of job sharing, to which an attorney argued, “Your Honor, this witness is no expert,” (p. 34). That one sentence seemed to sum up a lot of frustrations I have felt over the years—the feeling that no matter how much knowledge and experience I acquire in a certain field, it always feels like people undervalue my opinion.

I related this feeling to the types of power about which we have learned so much throughout our Leadership courses. One article in the Encyclopedia of Leadership (2004) states that expert power may be used by “individuals who are perceived as being highly skilled or knowledgeable in particular areas,” (emphasis mine) (Neider & Schriesheim, p. 1249). Expert power is not based solely upon whether the person actually is a bona fide expert in their field, but rather on whether the followers view the person as someone whose opinion carries weight and significance. The problem with perception, though, is that it is so subjective. The stereotypes of women—that they are weak, fragile, domestic, or too emotional—come into play and color peoples’ judgment of women as leaders. Her expertise—regardless of the amount of experience she has—is questioned because of the qualities associated with her gender. Because of this, I feel like it is often difficult for women to yield expert power, since it is something that has to be acknowledged by followers, many of whom may not be willing accept her influence.

This brings up the question of what kind of power women can yield. If they aren’t perceived as experts, how do women influence their followers? Logically, a woman can have legitimate power, in which case she could rely upon the hierarchy. Yet, women are often at a disadvantage in hierarchical systems, especially those that favor men and elevate them to higher positions. Likewise, coercive power would not be a good match, either; a woman who threatens her followers would be perceived as a “ball-buster,” and it is unlikely that she would have much success motivating other people to follow her. We have already talked about how women often engage in rewarding behavior, but transactional relationships can only go so far, and it doesn’t help her when it comes to her peers.

Ultimately, some of the past articles we have read led me to believe that women use referent power most optimally to influence followers. Referent power, like expert power, must be granted to the leader by the followers. However, unlike expert power, referent power doesn’t seem to be about acknowledging that somebody knows more than you, but rather is approval of their merit as a person, and recognizing that they are competent and good at their job. In the article by Pittinsky, Bacon, and Welle (2007), someone states, “’Women leaders don’t covet formal authority. They have learned to lead without it,’” (p. 96). I have a theory that women, who have for so long been denied that expert and legitimate power, have learned to overcome it by building good relationships. They get to know their followers and build relationships that eventually allow the followers to view them positively and be more willing to hear what they have to say, essentially building up referent power. In this way, they are able to act as leaders despite the restrictions that have been set on their use of power. Perhaps my theory isn’t accurate—I don’t know if women are naturally more relational or if we have been forced into it in order to accommodate what we lack—but it at least seems to be a viable thought when I watch other women emerge as leaders.

Neider, L. L., & Schriesheim, C. A. (2004). Power: Overview. In Encyclopedia of Leadership. (Vol. 3, pp. 1248-1251). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE reference.

Pittinsky, T. L., Bacon, L. M., & Welle, B. (2007). The great women theory of leadership? In Kellerman, B., & Rhode, D. (Eds.), Women and leadership: The State of Play and Strategies for Change (pp.93-125). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, M.C. (2004). Closing the leadership gap: Why women can and must help run the world. New York: Viking.


  1. I am so glad that you brought this up. When I came across the courtoom anecdote in the Wilson reading I felt like a perfect, simple explanation of how women are casually dismissed and their experience or expertise is undermined. And I think you’re right in pointing out that it leads us to question what kind of power women are left to yield. We have seen in our readings that women are either forced into or more naturally express their influence through shows of referent power and relational practices. But this expectation is restricting. The pharse from the courtroom story in the Wilson text could easily be translated from “this witness is no expert” to “this woman is no expert”. How are woman leaders ever going to climb the ranks if their achievements go unnoticed?

  2. Relationship management is something that I think is very important, and something that traditionally women do much better than men. It is definitely a way to be more transformational over time, and can allow women to build up to a role of respected expertise and authority over time if they cannot get the power that they desire immediately in their role. Every organization has a culture that employees must work with and it has often been formed by the majority white male workforce. That is why the study of organizational behavior and strategic management is very important for leaders to know. It helps them analyze and understand the psychology of employees and buyers so that they are able to understand how to form relationships inside the organization and externally. While it may discourage some women and even men from seeking certain leadership positions, it is still pivotal to learn how to interact with the people that one works with. This is one way women can seek to influence others.

    Historically, it will be interesting to see how women and leadership changes as more and more of the baby boomers generation retires and more millennials enter the workforce. Statistically many organizations will change rapidly since the youngest of the baby boomer generations are in their mid fifties and a vast majority will be seeking to retire in the next 10 years. While for women it is a lot to ask them to wait longer for the change they need, it could come sooner than expected.

  3. This is a very interesting take on women in leadership roles and the power that they exercise. I would agree that women have learned to adapt to overcome this power struggle. The woman I interviewed, Fariba York, said that she uses a more collaborative and team-oriented way of leading because her followers respond best to that. She also reported that when she tried to use her expert power, her bosses doubted her and did not respect her. I wonder if she would lead the same way or experience the same resistance to her power if she were a man. I wonder if this use of referent power stems from the expectation of women to be communal and warm.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: