Author: Geraldine Gallacher – CEO

Do Women Make Better Leaders

I believe this notion is erroneous and harms the progress of women leaders because it perpetuates 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 men and women are capable of developing the same skills and behaviour. The more we practise 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.

Stereotypes of masculine and feminine 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 empathic 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 ‘masculine ’ behaviours.  Others learned to contort their style to fit expectations. Those that didn’t were often overlooked for promotion. Perplexingly, those that did copy ‘masculine’ 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.

As there are more men in top positions, “masculine” 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, others 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, and both men and women can lead effectively.

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 feminine.

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. As they go further up the organisation and are not part of the dominant group, which is still dominated by men, women have to fit in while standing out. This code-switching which women, along with other under-represented groups, have to engage in in order to fit in with the dominant group, is perhaps an advantage in today’s hectic world where being able to consider multiple perspectives is required.