We've all heard the claims, the theories, and the speculation about the ways leadership styles vary between women and men. Our latest survey data puts some hard numbers into the mix.
Our data come from 360 evaluations, so what they are tracking is the judgment of a leader's peers, bosses, and direct reports. We ask these individuals to rate each leader's effectiveness overall and also to judge how strong he or she is on the 16 competencies that our 30 years of research shows are most important to overall leadership effectiveness. We ask, for instance, how good a leader is at taking the initiative, developing others, inspiring and motivating, and pursuing their own development.
Our latest survey of 7,280 leaders, which our organization evaluated in 2011, confirms some seemingly eternal truths about men and women leaders in the workplace but also holds some surprises. Our dataset was generated from leaders in some of the most successful and progressive organizations in the world both public and private, government and commercial, domestic and international.
In the confirmation category is our first finding: The majority of leaders (64%) are still men. And the higher the level, the more men there are: In this group, 78% of top managers were men, 67% at the next level down (that is, senior executives reporting directly to the top managers), 60% at the manager level below that.
Similarly, most stereotypes would have us believe that female leaders excel at "nurturing" competencies such as developing others and building relationships, and many might put exhibiting integrity and engaging in self-development in that category as well. And in all four cases our data concurred — women did score higher than men.
But the women's advantages were not at all confined to traditionally women's strengths. In fact at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows (see chart; click on the image to view a larger chart):
Specifically, at all levels, women are rated higher in fully 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been thought of as particularly male strengths. As it happened, men outscored women significantly on only one management competence in this survey — the ability to develop a strategic perspective (see chart; click on the image to view a larger chart).
So what should we conclude from these data? Why are we not engaging and fully employing these exemplary women leaders? Yes, blatant discrimination is a potential explanation. If not actual than certainly perceptual. When we shared our findings with a group of women outside this particuar survey and asked them to suggest why they thought their colleagues had been rated so highly on taking initiative and self-development, their answers pointed to the still-tenuous position they feel themselves to be in the workplace:
"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."
That is, anecdotally, at least, the women we queried don't feel their appointments are safe. They're afraid to rest on their laurels. Feeling the need (often keenly) to take initiative, they are more highly motivated to take feedback to heart.
The irony is that these are fundamental behaviors that drive the success of every leader, whether woman or man.
Why are women viewed as less strategic? This is an easier question to answer.Top leaders always score significantly higher in this competency; since more top leaders are men, men still score higher here in the aggregate. But when we measure only men and women in top management on strategic perspective, their relative scores are the same.
What should leaders and managers do with these findings? Here are our thoughts. Feel free to respond as well with your own.
- As leaders in organizations look hard to find the talent they need to achieve exceptional results, they ought to be aware that many women have impressive leadership skills. Our research shows these leadership skills are strongly correlated to organizational success factors such as retaining talent, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and profitability.
- As to the constant state of unease we hear women leaders express — clearly, chauvinism or discrimination is an enigma that organizations (and the business culture) should work hard to prevent. However, that said, think of the benefits every leader in every organization would gain from a mind-set that they simply can't afford to make a mistake. Paranoia or extreme risk aversion is clearly detrimental to a rising career. But in today's economic climate, every leader, male or female, would do well to avoid becoming complacent.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 03/15/2012.
View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion blogs.