Do Women Make Better Leaders?
It’s has been hotly debated online for decades, and the subject of countless opinion pieces and scientific studies. It’s also a question that inevitably causes offense and misunderstandings. After all, we’ve likely all known male and female leaders who have been equally impressive (or on the flip side, equally disappointing). It goes without saying that anyone with the right qualities and intentions can be a great leader, so perhaps what we should be asking is: ‘Do women have qualities that can make them better leaders? Why is this the case, and what can we learn from it?’
What makes a good leader, anyway?
Central to our ability to provide an answer to the controversial question is understanding what makes a good leader. Go back 50 years, and you’d likely get a much different answer to this question than you would today. Business leaders in times gone by were expected to be harsh, undemocratic, decisive, and assertive. These days, we place greater emphasis on a leader’s emotional intelligence, willingness to compromise, and collaborate. And, as our expectations have changed, so has the ability of women to progress into positions of senior leadership: the share of women sitting on the boards of Fortune 500 companies, for example, has been gradually rising for decades, increasing from 9.6% in 1995 to 31% in 2022. Collectively, we’re realising that leaders possessing soft skills leads to better business results – and soft skills just happen to be something that many women excel at.
Gender differences in leadership: what does the research say?
Leadership experts Zenger and Folkman have been monitoring the gender disparity in management positions for years. Their research has surveyed the leadership skills of thousands of women and men, finding that women outscored men in 17 of the 19 categories that differentiate an excellent leader from an average one. Although the results were tight, some of the qualities women were found to better exemplify included taking initiative, practicing self-development, building relationships, and collaborating with others. Their latest study shows the gender performance gap almost doubled during the pandemic, from 3.3 to 5.7, nudging women's relative performance even higher.
And it appears that such qualities can be directly correlated to positive results for an organisation’s bottom line. Research from McKinsey shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than those in the bottom, while companies with more than 30% female executives were more likely to outperform companies with a lower percentage. Even a survey we conducted here at Gleeson of almost 300 LinkedIn professionals showed that 66% of people think women make better leaders, indicating that many have had more positive experiences under female leadership.
Why do women seem to make better leaders?
The following characteristics are only generalisations, but ones that are backed by observations and studies:
Women offer fresh perspectives
We know that one of the key ingredients in the success of any organisation is the addition of diverse experiences and viewpoints, which play a significant role in fostering innovation as well as better decision-making. A 2021 Harvard Business School report found that firms became more open to change after women joined the top management team. The study showed that women not only brought new perspectives, but that they also changed how the C-suite thought about innovation, ultimately enabling these firms to consider a wider variety of strategies.
Women are often transformational leaders
A study conducted by Dr. Alice Eagly, a scholar on the topic of women’s leadership, found that women tend to be more effective at ‘transformational leadership’. Transformational leaders are by definition energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate. They are engaged with their team and involved in processes, while also being actively invested in helping those they manage succeed on an individual level. This has been shown to result in teams which are happier and more engaged.
Women tend to handle crises better
During the pandemic, it was noted time and time again that female leaders seemed to do a better job of keeping case numbers down, and deaths to a minimum. This is a trend that also seems to translate to the world of work, which is something that our friends Zenger and Folkman have also analysed. The authors highlight that data indicates certain characteristics become especially important in difficult times, including the ability to pivot and learn new skills, remain sensitive during times of stress, and to stay honest and transparent. Their analysis showed that these are traits that are more often displayed by - you guessed it - women.
Women place greater emphasis on work-life balance
It’s a sad fact, but it doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon: 74% of women who have children are considered their primary carer, and they’re also twice as likely to prematurely leave a role due to the responsibilities of, for example, caring for elderly parents. This means that when women attain leadership roles, they often place a greater importance on the work-life balance of their team – one of the most critical metrics for ensuring employee performance, engagement, retention and overall wellbeing.
Women are often better communicators
Leadership and communication go hand-in-hand. Great leaders can inspire their team to rally behind a cause, give their all to a task, and reach satisfactory solutions to problems.While men have the tendency to interrupt and use more assertive language, women more often focus on building mutual trust and support. A key contributor to this is the ability to actively listen to others and build a two-way dialogue as well as the ability to empathise with others, both of which women tend to be more skilled at than men.
Ultimately, the evidence suggests that women often make better leaders for a variety of reasons, from their ability to add fresh perspectives and diversity of opinion, to their willingness to compromise and respect work-life balance. Despite this, there’s no rulebook that dictates how either men or women can and should behave within leadership positions, only gender norms that many of us end up internalising or conforming to. Behaviours aren’t tied to chromosomes. Just as female leaders can be harsh and undemocratic, male leaders can be excellent listeners and skilled communicators. Understanding which behaviours result in better business outcomes should be a priority for all current and aspiring leaders, regardless of gender. And, as we enter a world in which the number of women in leadership positions will one day hopefully equal that of men, we will enjoy greater opportunities to learn from one another’s skills and perspectives, and understand that our collective strength will always lie in our ability to work together.
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