The age of female leadership? – Why female leaders are perceived differently

July 29, 2016

Well isn’t this interesting – women are taking over the world. We have a female Prime Minister, the most powerful politician in Europe is a woman and I can’t be the only one fervently hoping that the next US president is a woman because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. But will things be any different? Do women bring different qualities to the job? Instinctively, it feels like they do, but is that true? 

Well the short answer is, we don’t really know. The research is somewhat contradictory and it’s a complex thing to assess. What is clear is that female leaders are perceived differently.

The problem of categorisation

In order to know how to respond to something, we have to recognise it and categorise it – ‘ah yes, I’ve seen one of these before; it’s like this’. Because it’s the norm, the category ‘male leader’ doesn’t narrow it down enough, so we subdivide it. Thus Jeremy Corbyn is the UK’s Bernie Sanders – elderly white lefties with non-mainstream ideas who’ve mobilised a lot of young people. The connection can be much more tenuous. For a while, Chuka Umunna was the British Barack Obama, presumably on the grounds that they’re both mixed race, cooler than the average politician and in possession of unfamiliar but reassuringly pronounceable names. 

For female leaders, the category is much smaller, so we can start recognising them from existing templates straightaway. So of course, inevitably, Theresa May is the new Margaret Thatcher, unless you want to be more contemporary, in which case she is Britain’s Angela Merkel. That’ll be the Angela Merkel who is Germany’s Maggie Thatcher. This isn’t about how Thatcherite they are in their politics. Even Nicola Sturgeon – someone at the opposite end of the political spectrum – has been compared with ThatcherIt’s a short cut. Female, (late) middle-aged, pastel-coloured suit, no-nonsense approach? Yeah, a bit like Thatcher.

We’re not gender blind

The concept of leadership style is so bound up with who we are as people that it cannot be disentangled from gender. I have no idea how Theresa May’s leadership style actually compares with that of Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. She may operate in a way that is more similar to say, Michael Heseltine or Gordon Brown but I’m never going to find myself making that comparison. It just doesn’t compute (be clear, I’m talking about leadership style, not policies, here). 

Even if they said and did exactly the same things, I would probably perceive a male and a female leader differently. BlindfoldedI’d like to believe that that wasn’t true but I’ve read enough about unconscious bias to know that we take short cuts and are influenced by factors we are barely aware of, such as the pitch of someone’s voice. Behaviour that is seen as appropriately assertive in a man, may be perceived as ‘bossy’ (a word never used about any male over the age of 10) in a woman. Conversely, caring, empathetic behaviour, which is expected in women, may be seen as weak in a man. 

So given these differences in how men and women are perceived, it’s actually difficult to gauge whether men and women differ significantly in their leadership styles. There are, however, four things we can say with confidence about women as leaders, based on solid research in business and elsewhere.

1. Female leaders are more risk averse

And this may not always be a bad thing. 

Women seem to be less prone to over-confidence than men and more cautious in their approach to risk, particularly financial risk. This may have advantages for organisations, providing a counter-balance to more gung ho male leaders. There’s a possibility that testosterone may account for some of the difference between male and female risk tolerance, with psychologists suggesting that at least some of the financial crash could have been averted if the financial services sector had been less dominated by young men.

Of course, for women themselves, there’s a downside; their caution can hold them back in their careers. Caroline Arnold, who specialises in coaching up-and-coming women mid-career says that women are more likely to ensure that they can cover every aspect of a job description before applying for the job. As she points out, if you can already do every element of the job, it’s probably your current job. There’s no stretch, nothing to grow into. She’s constantly encouraging women to be bolder. 

2. Female leaders are necessary

This isn’t a political statement or a manifesto based on a desire for equality; it’s a pragmatic reality. Companies with a strong element of female leadership financially outperform those without it. That’s not one token non-exec, by the way. Team of Young Business ExecutivesIt’s three or more female board members or a female CEO and at least one other female director. These companies’ success is attributed to the fact that they are likely to be forward thinking and open to different perspectives.

There are also implications for corporate governance. Perhaps because of women’s tendency towards risk aversion, companies with more female leaders are less likely to be involved in scandals such as bribery, corruption, fraud or shareholder battles. Additionally, although they are less likely to take financial risk, women are more likely to take social risk, such as speaking up about something they disagree with.

3. Female leaders are as effective as men 

Or maybe even more so. A number of studies, looking at thousands of 360 degree feedback responses, have shown that female leaders tend to be rated more positively than their male colleagues, by everyone except themselves. Although some studies, suggest that this doesn’t apply in very masculine environments, such as the military, a study focused on business leaders found women were rated particularly strongly in traditionally male-dominated areas, such as IT, R&D and legal.

There are several suggestions for this. One is that women may have a more inclusive, collaborative leadership style that is more suited to the 21st-century work environment than the traditional command-and-control style, which it’s assumed comes more naturally to men. There’s mixed evidence on whether women leaders actually do behave differently, though.

Another factor is that, whilst a lot of very talented men make it to senior positions, so do rather a lot of average ones. It’s rare, however, for an average woman to make it that far. So the data is comparing a smaller number of highly talented women with a larger number of both talented and fairly average chaps, which skews the figures.

4. Female leaders are sometimes set up to fail

Ironically, given their propensity to be more risk averse, women are more likely to be given leadership positions when the situation is perilous and there is a high risk of failure. This is known as the ‘glass cliff’ effect – similar to the glass ceiling, but rather than being an invisible barrier, it’s an invisible career-killer. Women are more likely to be hung out to dry if it all goes wrong.

This makes the current political situation very interesting and also worrying. No one would argue that we’re living in a period of dull predictability. My fear is that we’ll look back in 5 years, at what might have been an uncomfortable time, forget the context and say ‘well we tried having women in charge and look how bad it was. Better let men take the reins back’.

Regardless of politics, I’m really hoping Theresa May is seen as successful for the sake of female leaders to come.

Photo credits

May & Merkel: No 10

Blindfolded: marsmettn tallahassee

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  1. Jeremy Marchant July 29, 2016 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    Not sure any of the people you’ve referred to are “leaders”.

    They form a rabble of demagogues, tyrants, charlatans, dogmatists, narcissists, psychopaths and fools. None of which are qualifications for being a leader.

    An article focussing on female “leaders” in **any** aspect of human behaviour *other than* politics would have been much more useful, because it would be free of the overweening self-interest and partisanship which is embodied in political “leaders” of all genders and which pollutes the whole subject.

    On the other hand, an article on female bosses in politics needs to address the extent to which high profile politicians, irrespective of gender and party, are in the pockets of corporate businesses (and loving it).

    Of course, I am all in favour of true leaders, and these can be found outside politics. And I am certainly in favour of women aspiring to be, and then becoming, leaders themselves. In fact, I suggest it is *easier* for most women to lead than it is for many men.

    The problem is not that they think they have to be like men (though that is *a* problem). The problem, to modify the zen saying for our times, is:

    “Woman stands in her own shadow and wonders why it is dark.”

    • carolinegourlay July 29, 2016 at 3:29 pm - Reply

      Well, I guess you may not consider them true leaders, but they are in leadership positions. I realised as I wrote this that I am rather conflating political leadership with business leadership, but a) it’s topical and, let’s be honest, it’s always good to have a topical hook for a blog and b) I think people do see women leaders as a bit of a homogeneous block. There are few very visible female business leaders, so I think there is a risk that women who are in charge of something can get lumped together. If one is seen to do badly, it may damage the reputation of many.

      I love your quote about woman standing in her own shadow. I may borrow that!

  2. Grant Morffew July 29, 2016 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    Seems I have to disagree with one assertion above on the grounds that this late 40s male has just been told off for being bossy. Hopefully a state not trait issue!

    • carolinegourlay July 29, 2016 at 3:34 pm - Reply

      I find that immensely reassuring, Grant. I’d bet good money (though not too much, I’m female and don’t do huge financial risk) on the person who said that to you being a woman, who was more junior than you – or your partner. Something said affectionately/indulgently by someone who knows they can get away with it. I can’t imagine a man saying to or about another man.

  3. Martin Hedley (@bustransform) August 26, 2016 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Interesting post. I have worked for very senior females in the airline and banking industry and found them excellent leaders – but I had to adjust my work of working with them to make the relationship effective. Because I was ‘used’ to male leaders I knew how to act. The first time I was led by a woman I had to adjust my thinking. The women I worked for tended, in various degrees, to work less directly – in other words the men reacted more quickly to something good or bad and directly said so. The women allowed me a chance to rectify bad for a while but if I didn’t, I certainly felt the love. One is not better than the other, just different.

    In my own leadership studies I too have found women to be rated more highly than men, on average, however it will take until the time we have true parity in rater/ratee populations before we can draw anything meaningful from this.

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