In our celebration of women, we look at the data on women as leaders. The data may challenge some of the more traditional views of women and effective leadership.  

Leadership is for many organisations a top priority say CEO's. In 21st- century it's no longer considered responsible, ethical or profitable to just keep on running things the way they always have been. Leading an organisation today is much more challenging: markets are changing rapidly, new ideas and new competitors are springing up, and customers have different expectations.

Social media and the accessibility of information mean a leader is no longer a nebulous name in the annual accounts but a person who is in the public eye and who will be called out for what is judged to be poor behaviour.

How women lead

Management Research Group (MRG) has studied behaviours and competencies in 13,100 leaders from more than 15 countries and found that women place more emphasis on three clusters of skills:

  • Behaviours that support transparency and connection: including enthusiasm, feedback, communication, and empathy
  • Accountability and results: including goal attainment, leadership responsibility and the willingness to be forceful
  • Execution: being organised, attending to details, and following up to ensure implementation is on track.

By contrast, men believe leadership is about:

  • Thinking strategically: contemplating both conservative and innovative options, and acting independently
  • Being cooperative, asking for assistance, and delegating to others
  • Persuading others to endorse their ideas and proposals.

These are all important leadership competencies, and it's clear that any leadership team will be stronger if it embraces all of them. But if the frameworks to identify and select future leaders are defined by men, then women and their skills will continue to be under-represented. Research by Catalyst the not for. profit group promoting inclusion and equality found in research by Annika Warren on talent management systems that organisations’ leadership frameworks and talent management processes are designed in ways that both reflect and continue to support stereotypes of current leaders. The result is, even today, they disadvantage women, creating a vicious cycle in which traditional men continually dominate leadership positions. The data showed that talent management professionals and senior leaders collude, all be it inadvertently, to perpetuate gender gaps in senior leadership.

What makes an effective leader?

Which "brand" of leader is most effective? When you look at the data it's hard to understand why traditional men continue to dominate leadership when women (and men with 'feminine' skills) actually out-perform them.

Assessed for competency by their bosses, their peers and their direct reports, women were rated higher than men on twelve out of the twenty-two skills measured by MRG. Including various forms of interpersonal effectiveness and credibility, and the two overarching leadership skills: overall effectiveness and future potential.

Men scored equally with women on seven and were rated higher than women on just three leadership competencies: business aptitude, financial understanding, and ability to see the big picture. (Note: the criteria for promotion commonly cover many skills, but these are usually set as the key determinants for promotion.)

And in other research leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman has analysed feedback on nearly 16,000 male and female leaders worldwide and found that women were rated 3% higher on overall effectiveness, compared with men. (This may not seem an impressive advantage, but on a sample of this size it is statistically significant.)

This is powerful evidence of how stereotypes override evidence of actual effectiveness: the media and myths override the facts. Women take heart: not only can you do it, you are doing it.

What's more, women appear to have a valuable ability to keep improving. According to Bob Sherwin, COO of Zenger Folkman, women's significant improvement after the age of 40 can be attributed to achievements in a competency called “Practicing Self Development,” which is a measure of the extent to which people ask for feedback and make changes based upon it. Men get worse at doing this as they get older.  Women get better at it.

The bottom line…

A 2016 study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY analysed results from 21,980 publicly traded companies in 91 countries and found that having women in at least 30% of leadership positions adds 6% to net profit margin.

According to McKinsey, companies across all sectors with the most women on their boards of directors consistently outperform those with no female board members – by 41% in terms of return on equity, and by 56% in terms of operating results.

So there is cause to stand tall, be proud and stick to your way of leading.

Jan Hills is a respected leadership consultant; her company Head Heart + Brain works with leaders and organisations in the UK, Europe and Australia. She recently published Brain-savvy Woman (with her daughter Francesca). The book uses an understanding of science, mainly neuroscience to review myths about gender in the workplace and to provide practical guidance for women and men on how to be successful in their career. She also runs the Brain-savvy Woman's on-line career management programme.