Are women leaders different?

A recent study found that US states headed by female governors witnessed lower numbers of deaths during the Covid-19 crisis. It was also reported in another study that “women leaders locked down their countries more quickly than their men-led neighbors … and also communicated in ways that were markedly different from men leaders”.

This is in line with a stream of research suggesting distinctive ways that characterize women leadership. In understanding those differences, the following points are noteworthy:

1- In early childhood, there are no observed differences in willingness to lead between boys and girls. As children become teenagers, however, a significant gender gap emerges with more males expressing a willingness to lead. Why this is the case is open to interpretation; this could be due to personal factors or to societal dynamics that push girls in one direction and boys into another.

2- Women face a strong cultural paradigm of think-leader think-malethat feeds a stereotype that they are less suitable for leadership. While this thinking has faded in some countries like the US, it still persists in others. Such cultural roadblocks discourage aspiring women from pursuing leadership opportunities.

3- Women are rated higher on some important leadership behaviors; men are evaluated higher on others. Women are perceived to be better equipped to inspire, motivate, communicate, and offer insightful feedback. They also might do better during times of crisis or uncertainty. Men were found to be effective under conditions that require risk-taking and strategizing. They are also perceived as having more control of their emotions, and in some cases more persuasive.

4- According to some studies, women reported lower levels of self-confidence, which is a key leadership attribute. These results are not conclusive, and seem to be context-specific. What this means is that on some tasks, women might –on average- display lower levels of self-confidence compared to men.

5- Some authors suggested “a modest female advantage” in transformational leadership. Women are better able to inspire followers, stimulate their intellects, and consider their individual needs. Again, this seems to be context-specific; women tend to fare well in those situations where such a style is needed.

Why it matters?

Understanding differences between men and women in leadership does not only serve the curiosity of researchers (it does!); this is also important for a variety of practical reasons:

1- Explaining successes and failures. Understanding differences helps in addressing cases of success and failure. When leaders fail, this is not because of their gender. Specifically, when a female leader fails, this has more to do with a specific lack of preparation to lead, or to a host of external factors, rather than her gender.

2- Building inclusive organizations. The mere fact that there are contexts where women fare better should not be used as an alibi to prefer them over men across the board (the same goes for men). This should, however, encourage the creation of inclusive organizational cultures that open the door to all. It is important to give qualified people, whether men or women, the opportunity to lead.

3- Going beyond biology. Organizations should not deal with aspiring leaders as mere “representatives of their sex”. People are individuals with various backgrounds, levels of education, social influences, cultural experiences, and life stories. All of these factors feed into their leadership prospects. To reduce one’s leadership potential to biological sex ignores the multitude of factors that make leaders.

Life is not a wrestling match between women and men. Life is about people coming together to build effective institutions that serve communities, improve well-being, and contribute to human flourishing. It does not matter who is leading; what is crucial is to have the right organizational structures where the most suitable person gets the opportunity to lead, irrespective of their gender. With a long history of exclusion and discrimination against women, societies will lose a lot if they keep women out of leadership circles.

“Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt” (Shirley Chisholm).

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