Them’s fighting words, I know… but hear me out.
The ongoing dearth of women in leadership positions is nothing new, and a lot of it is because the myths that seem to exist impact hiring and promoting women into leadership positions. These myths, biases, stereotypes, call them what you like, are false and unjustifiable, and it really is time to set them straight.
The myth, for instance, that women prefer not to aspire to higher levels of leadership within organisations is not true, yet this powerful unconscious bias plays an unfortunate role in placement and advancement of women in business.
In 2020, there were 70% males and 30% females in leadership positions, which is an improvement from the previous years’ 74% and 36%, but overall, only 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs, and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs, are women. And those numbers are declining globally.
So if women are better leaders than men, why is there an absence of women in senior leadership positions?
I do have to say at this point, that not ALL women leaders are better than ALL men leaders, but on average there is a discrepancy between the effectiveness of men and women leaders, in favour of women being better.
I did once have a female boss who had such an enormous chip on her shoulder that it seemed to impede her ability to be honest, and her people skills were clearly crushed by the weight of her ego. Well, to be fair, she was not a very nice person anyway, so being a good leader didn’t even come into the equation. But overall, on over sixty-two thousand 360-degree evaluations undertaken (Zenger & Folkman, 2019), women out-scored men on 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average ones. Women are seen to be more effective than men at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area of the organisation. (Zenger & Folkman)
Do leadership styles vary between men & women?
The summary from the evaluations done found that there were only two of the nineteen capabilities that men scored more than women, and those were ‘developing strategic perspective’, and ‘technical and professional expertise’. The other 17 capabilities showed that women were more effective leaders than men. The assumption that some will make is that the competencies women excel in are the more nurturing competencies, such as building relationships and developing others, but this is not true. The competencies where there were the biggest differences, where women are more effective than men, were ‘taking initiative’, ‘displaying integrity and honesty’ (clearly not my ex-boss!) and ‘driving for results’. None of these are stereotypically ‘nurturing’ competencies.
The bottom line is that women are more effective at getting things done and delivering results.
Why is ‘taking initiative’ the number one behaviour that separates men and women in leadership?
I feel this could be a chicken egg scenario. Is it because most women live a life of multiple responsibilities? They tend to have more responsibilities for multiple things than men do, which may have necessitated a need to be able to get things done just to survive. The evolutionary hunter gatherer skill coming into play, perhaps? Or is it because most women in leadership say they had to work twice as hard and do twice as much to be able to prove themselves worthy enough to be in leadership positions, therefor honing their leadership skills more than men feel they need to? Or is it simply an innate tendency women have?
What are women doing that creates the big difference in leadership effectiveness?
As women age, they are regarded more positively and recognised to be more effective than men. This gap between men and women continues to diverge with age until about 60, when it then narrows, but at its peak, the biggest difference is 9 percentiles.
The competency ‘practice self-development’ is higher in women than men. It appears women continually try to improve, where men seem to get to a point where they believe they are doing well enough. Women can make highly capable leaders, but what holds them back is lack of opportunity, rather than lack of skill. From the research conducted, women are as likely as, if not more likely than, men to succeed.
Enter The Fourth Industrial Revolution. We know that there will be more roles created and new skills will be needed. The future economy is skills-based, so hiring and interviewing procedures based on very specific requirements and past experience in unrelated roles, no longer makes sense. We need to look at different interview processes and assessments that best match people’s skills and potential to level the playing field and create opportunities for new roles and new kind of leadership.
So if women are more competent than men, why are the numbers of women in leadership roles decreasing? It seems to be easy for incompetent men to be in positions of leadership, while it is difficult for competent people, particularly women, to ascend into leadership positions. We are still battling the arrogance and overconfidence that is traditionally a ‘male attitude’ in the workplace. And it seems arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership efficacy. The best leaders espouse humility, and humility is something that is more common in females.
Women do outperform men in emotional intelligence, and leadership is about managing people, not tasks. People management is becoming more important as we approach the digital 4IR, so technically women should be in more demand as these roles are created and as AI automates much of the task management. Evolving job needs are levelling the playing field and creating opportunities to empower women. Organisations need to be open-minded enough to see that women from other industries can add value and can be extremely competent in leadership roles. Organisations that refuse to adapt from the traditional masculine structures will be left behind and overtaken.
At the risk of sounding like a proverbial drama queen, the survival of the planet depends on change, people! New strategies. New kinds of thinking. Collaboration. A new kind of leadership.
Women can offer these things. They get it. It is the human system that is broken – a new mindset is required.
The world is ripe for these changes, and I believe, if women have the competencies, organisations need to start using more women. And soon.