Are Women Better Leaders than Men?

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This topic contains 18 replies, has 11 voices, and was last updated by  Corey McCarren 6 years, 6 months ago.

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  • #157620

    Deb Green

    Recently, the Harvard Business Review blog reported research that identified women are better suited for leadership than men.

    Anecdotal research during this project identified women felt a need to “prove themselves” and “add value to the organization” in a way they felt men did not.

    What do you think? Do women make better leaders than men? Or do men make better leaders? Is it a gender issue or a capacity matter?

    Or, do you feel this is “your mother’s and grandmother’s” generational debate or does the gender ‘difference’ carry weight in today’s workforce?

  • #157656

    Corey McCarren

    Societal constructs may have made one gender seem more fit for leadership than another, but unless someone decides to experiment with a society that doesn’t pre-define gender based on sex, the world will never know.

  • #157654

    Mark Hammer

    Leadership is always context specific. Sometimes you need a man, sometimes you need a woman. Sometimes you need a sweater-wearing touchy-feelie softie, sometimes a cigar-chomping hardass. The same traits that may have been valuable at time A are counterproductive at time B.

    When Carol Gilligan’s A Different Voice came out 30 years ago, there was plenty of follow-up examining gender differences in moral reasoning, and high expectations of gender differences in leadership/management style. I haven’t followed it scrupulously, but my sense was that the subsequent evidence was hit and miss. Often the context would dictate the most effective leadership style (and the style adopted) more than the person’s sex.

    The other thing not addressed by Zenger and Folkman is who their sample are leaders OF. They draw their inferences via comparisons of ratings of male and female leaders, but who is providing the ratings: people for whom the traits are important, or a more heterogenous group of people who have no particular preference for what they want in a leader? And given the historical barriers to women entering leadership roles, you have to ask what role the receptiveness of the organization plays. How often do women end up leading organizations that are counter-prepared or hold biases against female leaders?

    I’m not saying I am unconvincible, but I’m not convinced…yet. I think men and women are equally capable of being exceptional and atrocious leaders.

    One side-note. There was a study in the late 1990’s – and I wish to heck I could find it again – in which leadership ability was evaluated in comparison to capacity to lie effectively. Males who were rated as better liars by 3rd-party judges were also judged as better leaders by an independent set of raters. The same relationship between skill in lying and leadership was not observed for women. I still don’t know what it means, but talk about provocative!

  • #157652

    Josh Nankivel
    There are a lot of variables in the study not accounted for; and self-report data of impressions from subordinates and coworkers can not be taken at face value. Everything from the way the questions were worded, organizational culture variables, the bias of the researchers creeping in without double-blinding (perhaps?) and more make me leery until alternatively designed studies independently done are performed.
    In my own experience, there is no difference in competence between men and women in any role; leadership or otherwise. There are only societal influences and systemmic biases which distort the numbers and influence discrimination based on sex.
  • #157650

    Neither sex or gender is inherently better or worse at anything, but the baggage that specific groups carry affect their effectiveness.

    Fancy way of saying, agree with Corey.

    Just a process comment – I think the premise of the discussion is flawed. Like if we somehow did “prove” anything what would be the benefit other than to create rivalry, sexism, reverse sexism, etc,

    Though yes it is of course interesting.

  • #157648

    Deb Green

    Mark, I think that last study you mention is fascinating, and probably most provocative one I’ve heard of yet when it comes to measuring differences between men and women. Wow.

    I tend to agree with you that leadership is context and situation specific. I think the best leaders (irrespective of gender) are the ones who can be both the cigar-wielding and touchy feely personas to the right audiences at the right time without alienating the “other” audience.

  • #157646

    Deb Green

    Agreed – some of the methodology seems slanted against, not towards, negative bias, and that’s a problem for me. I thought something of this nature wouldn’t be published in the HBR, but…. 🙂

  • #157644

    Deb Green

    That’s exactly why I thought it would make for a great discussion – why in the world is this such a popular topic of study and scrutiny? If sex/gender has little to any effect on determining “effectiveness”, why do so many researchers spend time looking for it?

    What I suspected would be discussed so far, (and hasn’t yet!) is if the “gender gap” discussion is as relevant today as it was in 1980.

    Any takers? 🙂

  • #157642

    Bill Brantley

    If the differences are that one gender feels more compelled to “prove themselves” and “make a difference” then what exactly is the biological basis for these feelings? What I find suspect about any gender research is that there is very little biological difference in men and women. I have known several transgender individuals and it seems to me that sexual differences seem to be more of a continuum rather than strictly binary. Thus, what is the genotype that is expressing a phenotype in the form of behaviors?

    Recent neuroscience has shown some differences between male and female brains but nothing has been discovered yet that shows substantial gender-based differences in perceptions and information processing.

    My rather loquacious way of saying that the gender gap discussion is not relevant in today’s world.

  • #157640

    Mark Hammer

    I’m as strong an empiricist as anyone, and reflexively look for confounds in studies that purport to demonstrate a bio-basis to sex differences that would justify gender roles. Once in a while something comes along that adds noise and shakes my beliefs (though without completely dislodging them).

    Some 25 years back I was working as a resarch assistant for a prof in my department, who was studying attention using a “Stroop task”. This refers to a task where a stimulus is presented with several salient features, and the individual has to process the information and respond as quickly as possible, while ignoring one aspect and attending to another. The classic version involves reading colour names as fast as possible, that are written in letters the same colour as the name, or in different colours, like BLUE, written in red. Alternatively, one says the colour of the letters, ignoring the actual word. (the original cards are housed at Vanderbilt U. in the Education faculty, and George Stroop’s house is a few blocks away from campus).

    The task for our participants involved looking at a screen where the words “left”, “right”, “above”, “below” would appear on the screen in different locations, sometimes congruent with the meaning of the word, and sometimes incongruent. The individual had to press a button as fast as they could, corresponding to either the meaning of the word, or the location of the word. In other words, you had to either ignore the meaning, or ignore the location.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such striking sex differences. If you had to pay attention to the location and ignore the word meaning, males were much faster and made considerably fewer errors. If you had to pay attention to the word and ignore where it was, women were faster and made fewer errors. And we’re not talking small differences, either. Anybody here could, within 15 minutes, be able to accurately sort hundreds of participants into male and female piles merely by looking at their speed and error-rate.

    As the poor sap who had to put hundreds of undergraduates through this, I note two very noteworthy exceptions to the pattern. Both were women who could best be described – and my sincerest apologies here for any sexism contained or implied – as husky tomboyish “country gals” with a certain amount of facial hair (think 14 year-old boy’s first feeble sideburns). Their response pattern was indistinguishable from the males.

    I’m still not quite sure what to make of it, but it was about as basic a difference in information processing as you can get.

    In a very different direction, sociologist David Gutman (… ) has proposed that gender roles exist universally (even the the specific roles may differ by society/culture) primarily for the division of household labour during parenthood, and suggested that men and women become more alike, psychologically, once the “parental emergency” is lifted. I suppose what one might extrapolate from this is that leadership style, and potential impact of gender role on that, might ultimately depend on how old the individual is and what stage or state of family life they may be in. Conceivably, leadership style may be more dissimilar for men and women in their late 30’s, with kids in school, but more alike for empty-nesters in their late 50’s.

    Of course, this is yet one more reason why the Zenger & Folkman survey comes up frustratingly short in terms of variables considered.

  • #157638

    Pat Lockett

    Did the study describe how needing to “prove themselves” translates into successfully leading people/adults/professionals? Unfettered ambition is quite different from sound and thoughtful leadership.

  • #157636

    Paul Homan

    I think this is a great video relating to this topic.

  • #157634

    Deb Green

    I think the point the author tried to make is that successful individuals, irrespective of gender/sex, are more likely to continue to push the envelope for development, experience, and capacity than their less successful counterparts.

  • #157632

    Deb Green

    Super powerful story. Thanks for sharing Paul. Working together does supersede all.

  • #157630
  • #157628

    Mark Sullivan

    I think it’s important to distinguish between leadership as a ‘role’ and leadership as a ‘service’ Most of the attributes or competencies in the article focus on the technical qualities necessary to be successful in an authority role. However, the most pernicious challenges facing organizations and communities tend to be resistant to solutions that focus on authority or technical expertise. In contrast, when we examine leadership as a service we begin to focus more on our higher purpose how we mobilize people and factions to do real work in support of that purpose.

    So how effective are women vs. men in mobilizing people towards real work? I don’t see evidence that one group is better than the other. Real leadership requires the ability to provoke people out of complacency or tolerance of the status quo – it requires the abilty to motivate people beyond the acceptance that ‘survival’ or just getting by is good enough. It also requires the ability to accept or tolerate the necessary losses (e.g., ego, competence, factional loyalty) to move forward. It seems to me that this requires both feminine and masculine attributes that are not intrinsic to one gender.

  • #157626

    Deb Green

    Well said Mark! Your placement on an org chart isn’t the defining characteristic of leadership.

  • #157624

    David Dejewski

    I don’t subscribe to the idea that one sex is better than the other at leadership.
    Context makes a difference. Individual skills and experience, flexibility and adaptability, and motivation and committment all make a difference. To make leadership about a sex, like all generalizations, is over simplifying it.
    That said, the sexes are not equal, thank goodness. Most of us would not enjoy this world so much if they were.

  • #157622

    Deb Green

    I agree David – Personally, I’m surprised that the “this discussion isn’t terribly relevant in today’s workforce” hasn’t been a theme that’s emerged in this string.

    Situational and transactional leadership capability is much more relevant, and reliable, predictor of successful leadership than gender or sex.

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