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The gender debate: are female leaders different?

female leaders

July 22, 2016

26 years after Britain’s first female Prime Minister stood down, Theresa May now has her feet firmly under the table at Number 10. Unsurprisingly when just 28% of FTSE100 board members are women, much has been made of Mrs May’s gender as she becomes the most powerful woman in the country, but how different are female leaders really?

Our Prime Minister takes up her post at a time of considerable turmoil, when undoubtedly the country needs a strong leader and the Conservative Party is crying out for unity after the bitter Brexit battle. Since assuming her position on 13 July she has certainly made her presence felt, doling out P45s to almost the entire Cabinet.

Her apparently ruthless firing of a swathe of Ministers left just five of David Cameron’s 24-strong team in their jobs, prompting comparisons with Harold Macmillan’s infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in 1962 when he fired seven of his Cabinet. Such brutal decisiveness isn’t necessarily associated with female leaders.

There is something of an urban myth that women are somehow more nurturing in their management style and less able to make tough, unpopular decisions.  Writing about leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman’s research of 45,000 leaders worldwide, Bob Sherwin observes,The majority of people we talk with make the assumption that women will excel at nurturing competencies such as developing others, inspiring and motivating others, relationship building, collaboration and teamwork… But those competencies with the largest positive differences are taking initiative, displaying integrity and honesty, and driving for results. These are not nurturing competencies.”

This ability to get things done is a trait closely associated with Theresa May, who famously said, “I’m somebody who gets on with the job.” Indeed, making her new Cabinet in her own image, she reportedly told them at their first meeting to “Get to it and get on with the job.”

‘Getting on with the job’ is a very powerful way of demonstrating effectiveness but of course a results-orientated approach isn’t gender-dependent. Yet according to the Zenger Folkman research, female leaders are overall considered to be more effective than men. When asked why this is, women reportedly said, “In order to get the same recognition and rewards, I need to do twice as much, never make a mistake and constantly demonstrate my competence.”  

This may be a matter of opinion, but when examining the data there is another trait of female leaders which is clearly highly influential: practising self-development. This behaviour, which involves listening to feedback on their performance and making changes, is far more prevalent in women. Echoing this in a piece on the undervalued leadership traits of women in Forbes Magazine, several of the female leaders interviewed cited listening as being the secret to their success.

So is there a gender divide when it comes to successful leaders? Arguably it’s impossible to say until we have a level playing field and equal numbers of male and female leaders.  However, I do believe that some key leadership qualities are more often demonstrated by women.  But whether that is to do with their gender (i.e. innate female traits) or their need to punch above their weight due to their minority status, it’s a moot point.

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