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Do women make better leaders?

It’s tempting to compare the response to Coronavirus of Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ahern, with that of Trump or Bolsonaro and conclude women must be better at dealing with this crisis because of their gender. Geraldine Gallacher examines this assumption.

Geraldine Gallacher

June 2020

The same argument played out during the financial crash of 2008. If only Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, the crash wouldn’t have happened.  It harms the progress of women leaders, perpetuating the idea that gender determines behaviour.  It doesn’t.  

Advances in cognitive neuroimaging refute the Victorian idea that men and women have different brains.  Scans show that both are capable of developing the same skills and behaviour.  The more we practice a skill the easier, more ‘natural’ it feels.

As children, we are raised in line with the norms and expectations our culture has of our gender.  In turn, this encourages the development of different behaviour and skills in men and women.  As Simone De Beauvoir famously said, “women are made, not born”. Yes, studies show that women leaders have a tendency to display more affiliative and collaborative behaviour than men, but this is a result of socialisation, not biology. 

Harmful Stereotypes

Stereotypes of male and female behaviour seep into the workplace. We expect male leaders to be confident, clear and decisive, and women leaders to be nurturing, collaborative and empathetic. 

This harms the progress of aspiring women leaders in two ways.  If women don’t display empathetic or affiliative behaviour a question mark hangs over their ability to lead.  I’ve coached countless women that lead competently and whose style leans more heavily on stereotypically ‘male’ behaviour.  

Others learned to contort their style to fit expectations. Those that didn’t were often overlooked for promotion.  

Even more perplexing, those that did copy ‘male’ behaviour were often penalised for doing so. This is the “double bind dilemma” that’s often referenced in research. It’s a situation that can challenge a woman’s sanity unless it’s highlighted early on in her career. It’s so important to keep repeating the message that you don’t need to fix women; you need to fix the system. 

A different style of leadership

As there are more men in top positions, “male” behaviours have become ingrained in our thinking as necessary for leadership.  This doesn’t make sense when you consider that leadership happens in a context or response to a specific situation.  Some situations call for confident, clear and decisive action other for a more empathetic and collaborative approach.  That shouldn’t mean we reach for a man for the former and a woman for the latter.  Both can develop and display multifaceted leadership skills.

For some time, organisations have been moving away from a heroic style of leadership to one that better reflects the complexity of the world we live in.  Leadership that engenders engagement rather than expects conformity, that is empathetic and understands the views of multiple stakeholders and seeks to collaborate across organisational borders.  Behaviour that has been stereotyped as female.   

The call for more women at the top is right and fair but should really be a call for a different leadership style.  One that engages and motivates but that is also decisive and can exercise authority.

Geraldine Gallacher, Founder and MD, The Executive Coaching Consultancy

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