Why do we even talk about female leadership?

by May 22, 20173Plus, Career, Conversations about leadership, Gender Balance, Leadership2 comments

Female leadership – does gender really make a difference?

female leadership

The words “female leadership” bring up 242 million results in 0.62 of a Google second. If it seems that I’ve been on a campaign about stereotyping and gender coded expectations, that’s because I have. We have certain fixed ideas about how men and women do and should behave, separating them into distinct gender based silos. The reality is that these behaviours are on a spectrum and both men and women can exhibit the same characteristics.  As more and more organisations are assuming the style “balanced leadership” maybe it’s time we should even stop talking about female leadership in the first place.

Research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in a report by Mindie Strorrie of UNC Kenan Flager Business School reports that women scored better than men on 15 of 16 core leadership competencies following a peer evaluation. [Tweet “The inclusion of women in key corporate roles boosts productivity, innovation, team dynamics”], decision-making processes, organization well-being, not forgetting profitability.

The question was do women make better leaders than men? The answer is probably some do and some don’t. And male and female leadership styles are sometimes different, but sometimes not. In the way that some men make better leaders than others.

Read: The Value of Self-Leadership – How to develop yourself

Women are not necessarily different

Suggestion have been made that when women enter a male coded culture they tend to adopt a style that is more “male” in order to be successful. But what happens when they have the opportunity to create and drive their own culture?  Is female leadership different to male leadership? It would appear, not necessarily. 

A post in Broadly “We’re living in the era of the hypocritical feminist boss” flags up some female start-up executives  who positioned  themselves as “outspoken feminist role models”  It seems that their actions fall short when it comes to women’s rights in their own companies. 

Under the microscope is Sophia Amoruso, founder of clothing company Nasty Gal with  lawsuits filed against the company for firing “four pregnant women, as well as a man about to take paternity leave” in breach of California law. There is also Thinx, the period-underwear company headed by Miki Agrawal who has a number of court cases against her, including sexual harassment and promoting a toxic working atmosphere. Agrawal has apparently called these allegations “baseless” and said they had “absolutely no merit.”

 There is an expectation that because a company is headed by a woman, the culture of the organisation will change and there will be a shift in values and vision. But as we all know these are not necessarily and always, gender based.

The post in Broadly cites Maga Miranda, a teacher and researcher who helped organize in New York City for the International Women’s Strike, as saying  that mainstream women’s movements rely too much on corporate models of success, to their immense detriment.

“More women CEOs doesn’t necessarily mean better conditions for all women. Having a woman lead a company doesn’t mean that the company will usher in a feminist revolution or even engage in equitable labor practices.”

Read: Values-based leadership needed more than ever

Leadership context 

We have seen that female leaders are just as likely to behave and support or make decisions not in line with stereotyped gender expectations or support initiatives for women.  They don’t become softer, more collaborative and other centred.  There have been some striking examples of this recently in female leadership: 

  • Marissa Mayer – stopped employees tele-commuting when she took over as CEO of Yahoo. The same strategy is now being employed by IBM  with a female CEO, Ginny Rommetty.
  • Irene Rosenberg CEO of Mondelez pulled out of the Fair Trade Agreement for Cocoa products despite personal earnings of $28 million. She didn’t blink when she closed down the Cadbury plant in the U.K. backtracking on previous promises.
  • Theresa May (UK PM) and Amber Rudd (UK Home Secretary) supported an appeal to the Supreme Court by the Metropolitan police after the women won a human rights case over serious failures in the way police investigated a serial rapist.

The best skills for the job always depend on the context and these can be gender balanced and gender neutral. Women are said to favour a more collaborative approach which is now being associated with higher levels of burnout. They can also lean towards a more task orientated style, which works well in situations where safety or compliance is important, but perhaps less effective in creative thinking and innovation. Hence we have heard of the Lehman Sisters Hypothesis  where it is suggested that a more heavily female dominated leadership might have avoided a global recession. Research from Elizabeth Sheedy, Associate Professor – Financial Risk Management, Macquarie University disputes this:

“… we also assessed the extent to which each staff member was risk-loving or risk averse – in other words, their individual risk tolerance. We found people who are more risk loving are generally less likely to display good risk management behaviour.”

Gender was not a factor.

Read: Women and Visionary Leadership

Gender bi-lingual 

Both men and women should look at the range of qualities that can make a great leader, and decide which ones to nurture in themselves, depending on their career goals and personal strengths. These qualities will be gender bi-lingual

[Tweet “It’s time to move away from the notion that gender is a key differentiator in leadership style.”] What we need is leaders who display a range of characteristics, styles and traits which expands the range of talent in an organisations leadership pool.  These skills can be exhibited by both men and women.

What we also have to do is stop promoting and rewarding incompetent men simply because they are male. An article from 2013 in Harvard Business Review Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic  suggested:

The result is a pathological system that rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their competence, to everybody’s detriment.

Would you like to strengthen your female talent pipeline? Contact 3Plus now!


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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