Why are women better leaders than men?

03/05/2018 at 12:22 Leave a comment

What makes a good leader? This is a hotly discussed question and also when the topic falls upon differences in the effectiveness between male and female leaders. Emotions have so far driven these conversations, but we are now beginning to get some data to support a more informed debate.

Personally, when it comes to these types of conversations I like to let the data speak; what do we know about the difference in leadership effectiveness between men and women? The data I will share first come from 360-evaluations, which we have collected in collaboration with our partner Zenger Folkman, who are also writing extensively about this. 360-evaluations measure the judgment of a leader’s leader, peers, direct reports and other relevant input givers. We ask these individuals to rate each leader’s effectiveness by evaluating how well he or she performs on 16 competencies, which have proven to be the most important to overall leadership effectiveness. Also it is worth bearing in mind, that 360-surveys have the highest predictor for success within an organisation compared with other assessment forms.

In a specific survey of 7,280 leaders from a mix of public and private organisations across the world give some really interesting insights into this area; in some ways it confirms things we assumed about men and women leaders in the workplace but also holds some surprises.

The main conclusion is that female leaders score significantly higher than their male counterparts on 360-degree evaluations and that this gap widens the more senor the leaders are. This is shown in the below table.

Men vs Women

Interestingly, looking deeper into the data, of the 16 competencies, which the leaders are measured upon, women leaders score significantly higher on 12 of them (mostly on Takes Initiative, Practice Self-Development, Displays High Integrity & Honesty as well as Drives For Results) and only significantly lower on one (Develops Strategic Perspective). So the typical stereotypes, which would have us believe that women leaders excel at the “soft” competencies are not completely true; women actually do really well on many of the so-called hard competencies as well.

Another analysis of the data provides an interesting insight; the relative effectiveness of women leaders appears to improve over time. At the beginning of their respective careers there appear to be little difference between men and women, but over time this women are perceived in an increasingly positive way and more effecting than their male counterparts. This continues until they reach their 60’s, when the gap begins to narrow.

Our data is just one out of many backing up this conclusion. One study, led by Professor Øyvind Martinsen, head of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the BI Norwegian Business School, assessed in a study the personality and characteristics of nearly 3,000 managers. In nearly all areas, the study concluded that women were better leaders than their male colleagues. Women outperformed men in four of the five categories: initiative and clear communication; openness and ability to innovate; sociability and supportiveness; and methodical management and goal-setting. This corresponds well with our own findings. Interestingly, men did better than women at dealing with work-related stress and they had higher levels of emotional stability.

When we look into the split between male and female leaders, it is unfortunately still the case that women represent a relatively small part of the overall leadership population – especially at top level. Why is that the case  if they are better than their male counterparts? Certainly, discrimination is a potential explanation but frankly, I don’t really think the gap can be explained by conscious discrimination. If we are looking at that direction, I think it has more to do with unconscious bias but again, I think this is only one (small) element of the explanation. Let’s look more into that in another blog post.

Why might it be true that women are better than men when it comes to leadership? I think there might be many avenues of answers to this. Let me offer four different ones;

  1. It might be that women receive higher scores on 360’s because of bias. These bias could come from believing that women are better at ‘people issues’, that they (the women) must be good if they have made it into leadership or other cognitive bias.
  2. Another explanation is that because so few women are selected to leadership positions, only the very best are selected – a natural selection bias if you will – which will mean that women are not better than men as leaders but because the quality selected means that the female appear better. Had there been an equal amount of men and women the scores would have been the same.
  3. Another reason might be that women has to be better leaders than men to be selected as leaders thus making them better. This suggests that there are two levels of entrance into leadership; one for men and one for women.  This was explained by a group of women in a Harvard Business Review article with statements such as “We need to work harder than men to prove ourselves.”, “We feel the constant pressure to never make a mistake, and to continually prove our value to the organization.”
  4. A fourth reason could lie in an underlying intelligence of succeeding as leader i.e. being good in emotional intelligence. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that women score higher than men generally on emotional intelligence competencies. Perhaps traditional cognitive intelligences which men traditionally has performed well in account for less in terms of leadership effectiveness today.

The above suggestions are just speculations with limited theory and data to support. But I would be very interested in your possible answers to this.

So what does this mean? First of all, most organisations find it hard to attract and/or develop great leaders. I believe leadership is a fundamental element in any successful organisation. Great leaders creates great business results. So from a pure business perspective, organisations should attract qualified leaders from the largest possible pool of talent which includes of course all women. Secondly, whatever practice or cultural element is creating this situation, you should know that this is holding back your organisation. Work on your culture to eliminate any processes, behaviours and reasons for this.

A final note: More companies are implementing unconscious bias training in recruitment as a mean to hire more female leaders. The argument goes that it is due to unconscious bias that women are not selected as leaders and with proper training men will become aware of these bias an adjust accordingly. Having spent some time trying to find evidence to support the effectiveness of this kind of training – and being unsuccessful at that – I would suggest that other methods should be used instead. It is unclear what exact bias the training is targeted, how the training will sustain such a radical change and how the effect is measured.

Entry filed under: Measuring HR. Tags: , , , .

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