What Female Leaders Bring to the Table

Gender differences dominate the headlines. But how much truth is there in the stereotypical representation of female leaders? And what, if anything, does that mean for business?

There are times where stereotypes can help build an organization. For example, a buyer persona — quite literally, a profile of a stereotypical target consumer — is an invaluable tool for product development, sales & marketing and strategic growth.

But, the usefulness stops there. And beyond the remit of design and marketing, stereotypes do not belong in the modern workplace.

To assume or predict that an employee will behave or perform a certain way because of their personal profile is, at best, morally wrong, and, at worst, grounds for a very serious lawsuit indeed.

And whilst there are some observable differences between some male and female leaders and their management styles — because, after all, people are people — gender is not the difference we should be focusing on.

The individual differences between one leader and the next — whether it’s personality, their approach, what they value most in a colleague, what they studied at school, or even what their favorite type of food is — will always be greater than the differences between groups in general.

Therefore it’s not a case of either-or, male or female, leaders. We need both.

However, as women are still hugely underrepresented in board-level positions across the world, there’s still quite a way to go before we have the diversity needed to benefit from mixed gender leadership teams. 

A good place to start is by better understanding what women leaders bring to the table. No stereotypes, no generalizations. And plenty of room for individual differences.

So let’s begin there...

The female leader: separating the fact from the fiction

Steven Hawking, known in his time as the smartest man alive, said this: “Women. They are a complete mystery.”

And whilst we love Hawking, we have to disagree with him on this one. Women are no ‘harder’ to understand than men. To shroud any group in an air of mystery simply reinforces the narrative for discrimination. 

In her book, ‘The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain’, cognitive neuroscientist, explains: “A gendered world will produce a gendered brain”.

That is, the more we focus on differences between men and women — or any other social group that is — the higher the likelihood of those differences becoming real. Just as in Rosenhan’s pioneering psychology study, ‘On being sane in insane places’ found: if you give someone the label of a certain personality or behavioral trait, they will, eventually, begin to believe it for themselves.

The sooner we can quell baseless female leader myths, the better.

Fact or fiction - Female leaders are risk-averse and therefore hold their organizations back

Look online, and you’ll no find no shortage of studies and articles claiming that women take fewer risks than men.

But dig a little deeper, and you’ll also find numerous other sources debunking this theory.

For example, some social scientists have concluded that our propensity to partake in “risk-taking behavior” has more to do with our surroundings than our gender. The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at girls from two, culturally distinct populations — the matrilineal Mosuo and the traditionally patriarchal Han — who happened to be enrolled at the same school. At first, the Mosuo girls exhibited greater risk-taking behavior than the boys, whereas Mosuo girls were more risk averse.

However, as the research went on, their attitudes towards risk actually began to converge. 

So what does this have to do with leadership?

Essentially, risk-taking is a behavior that can be learned. For one: girls are not born more or less risky than boys. And two: even risk-averse girls, who may have been brought up to be more restrained, can learn to be open to risk when in the right environment.

This makes a strong argument for company culture playing a role in female risk-taking. If you find that women leaders are more risk-averse in your organization, then the environment you’re creating may have something to do with it. 

With all that said, there’s something else to consider here. Namely, is it really such a bad thing to have more risk-averse leaders around the table?

Does that necessarily hold the organization back?

No. Not if you ask Joanne Lipman, author of ‘That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together’. Her research paints a clear picture:

“Companies with female chief financial officers make fewer, better acquisitions than those with male chief financial officers. Female executives make more profitable acquisitions and take on less debt than male executives.” 

So, when it comes to separating the fact from the fiction here: yes, women leaders may be more risk-averse in the stereotypically male behaviors of hard negotiation and trading. But whether that comes at any detriment to the company is another matter entirely.

Fact or fiction - Women are more emotional in the workplace, and this has a negative knock-on effect on their teams

There’s two elements to unpack here.

One: whether or not women are more emotional in the workplace.

And two: if that’s a bad quality to have as a leader.

To begin with this, we need to define the difference between being emotional and having emotional intelligence (EQ). 

When it comes to outbursts of emotion at work, a recent study of 2,250 UK workers found that men were in fact more likely to become emotional; getting frustrated if their ideas weren’t heard, or when their status or importance was challenged in some other way.

On the other hand, it is seen as a female trait to have high EQ. Let’s say for a moment, for argument’s sake, that that is true: that women leaders are more emotionally intelligent than male counterparts. What impact does that have on their teams?

If we define emotional intelligence as being able to consider other people’s feelings as if they were your own, praising others, keeping to commitments and helping others learn — then these are all fantastic leadership traits, whether it’s a man or woman who is exhibiting them.

And when it comes to leading and engaging teams, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that women do a great job. Teams led by women tend to out-perform teams led by men, and are better connected to the organization’s overall purpose. Employees of women leaders also tend to be more satisfied and enjoy greater autonomy — as a result of flexible working formats, like three-day weeks and working from home.

We’ll have to mark this common myth as ‘fiction’.

Fact or fiction - Women are less likely to be leaders because they prioritize kids over career progression

In 2019, it was estimated that 29% of senior management roles were held by women. That’s a global figure and — staggeringly — is the highest recorded percentage to date.

One of the primary narratives used to explain the leadership gender gap is that women fall out of their careers when they decide to have children. This, and the fact that women are ‘less ambitious in their careers’ in the first place.

But how much truth is there in those statements?

A fascinating study by Boston Consulting Group found that not only do women begin their working life with just as much ambition as men, but that having children does not make them any less ambitious either.

Instead, BCG concludes that ambition is the result of inclusive company culture.

In organizations where there are examples of mixed gender leadership, women strive just as hard to reach those positions as male colleagues. On the other hand, in companies where diversity is less of a priority, an ‘ambition gap’ opens up — in these instances, women are 17% less ambitious when aged 30-40 years old (a crucial stage for many people’s careers that often ends up determining their peak earning potential).

It seems that the power to subvert gender stereotypes and the common myths surrounding female leaders has been right in front of our noses the whole time: it’s about modeling diversity and creating an inspiring company culture for all genders.

We need a balance of both male and female leaders — so how do we get there?

Mixed gender leadership environments not only result in a more balanced team dynamics, but they encourage more women to step up to the management challenge.

Essentially, an even mix allows for "a psychological safe communication climate" — one that breeds innovation, collaboration, and commercial success.

So to answer the question: “What do women leaders bring to the table?”, the answer is everything. Fail to sufficiently represent females in your board of directors, C-suite or senior management team, and the business will suffer as a result.

What lies ahead is a recruitment and retention challenge. To attract and keep strong, creative females — and to establish the kind of culture that helps them self-identify as potential leaders. 

But, most importantly, we need to make space for individual differences within gender groups. Not all female leaders will think the same. Not all male leaders will do the same either.

To return one last time to author, Joanne Lipman: “Want to win? You need to pick the best, period, from all the available talent.”

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