While the number of women in leadership roles is increasing overall, reaching an all-time high of 29% senior management positions[1] and 6.6% Fortune 500 female CEOs[2] in 2019, the roles and areas they lead still speak to some of the biases around women since ages. Women’s leadership style, defined by innovation, building trust, and empowering followers, might be the addition needed today to navigate current business challenges.

Men and women leadership styles and the double bind

For ages, the dominant leaders where white men, and therefore we are biased to believe the most efficient leadership style is the aggressive-dominant one, with no fear of engageing in conflicts and show a position of great strength. While women can (and do) exercise the same kind of leadership style (think medical emergencies, for example), they get different responses for acting like this and even feel the need to apologize after the event. Moreover, women tend to prefer a more transformational type of leadership, choosing charisma, intellectual stimulation, and consideration of the individual[3]. And that is where the clash exists.

As phycologists define this, the clash happens between two sets of associations: communal and agentic. Women are considered to have more communal traits, such as being affectionate, helpful, friendly, sensitive, and soft-spoken. On the other hand, men are associated with more agentic characteristics, such as aggression, control, ambitious, dominant, as well as self-reliant and individualistic. As male leadership was dominant most of the time, we consider the most effective leadership style to be the agentic one, and that is what makes it hard to separate the leader associations from the male ones.

This leads to the double bind women face in leadership positions. If they are highly communal, they might be criticized for lacking the agentic traits of a leader. But if they turn agentic, they are easily perceived as vile—some examples: when a man speaks up to defend the truth, he is called passionate. A woman is called a control freak. When in a position of power, a man is expected to be aggressive and strong, a woman is called bossy. When celebrating success, it is expected a woman to be modest and “wearing it well”.

Women by nature tend to adopt a more participative and collaborative leadership style than men, and despite the biases, this gets good results without seeming too masculine. Therefore, women are learning how to navigate this double bind and find ways to project authority without the use of agentic behaviors people find so misplaced in women.

Why today more than ever – business challenges need a different leadership style

Financial performance is a direct result of organizational performance. According to McKinsey’s study, “Women Matter”[4], organizational performance is reinforced by nine leadership behaviors, and women tend to apply five of these leadership behaviors more frequently than men, thus contributing to better corporate performance. That is why having (not one, but more) women in leadership roles in various functions across the business adds up to the diversity needed to navigate today’s and future critical business challenges.

The study started with assessing the organizational excellence of companies against nine key criteria: direction, accountability, coordination and control, external orientation, leadership team, innovation, capabilities, motivation, and work environment and values. They have matched these with nine key leadership behaviors that contribute to organizational performance: participative decision making, role model, inspiration, expectations and rewards, people development, intellectual stimulation, efficient communication, individualistic decision making, and control and corrective action. The study went on and assessed how frequently these nine leadership traits were applied by managers, and then by women and men leaders.

The results were confirming why the right gender balance in leadership roles is making the difference between excellent companies and the others. As you can see in the graph below, women tend to apply more five of the nine leadership behaviors contributing to excellence, especially the ones related to the people-side of business operations: people development, participative decision making or inspiration, and role modeling.

Leadership behaviors shown by men and women

Moving on, below is an overall representation of how each leadership behavior contributes to the overall business performance. It’s easier to grasp in one go how the nine leadership styles add to excellence, and how women’s contribution is key to achieving maximum performance.

Women leadership behaviors matched with key organizational performance areas

Looking at the fast-paced business landscape and technological advancement, and the need to act in a data-driven way in a complex ecosystem, where knowledge and information are critical, the necessity of gender (and not only) diversity in organizations has never been more imperative. It’s now clear that diversity makes a difference. Still, the pain point today is around building leadership diversity and making it possible for women to access strategic leadership roles in organizations.

Management interventions that work

The change will not just happen. Despite being aware of the benefits, companies still need time to adjust, culturally, to having more women in key leadership positions. Strategies need to be put in place to allow women to access the ladder to top roles, and there are a few things any organization should start implementing to have a go at staying in business long term.

One of the first things a business needs to do is to make everyone aware of current biases and the psychological drivers behind them. It can be quickly done through training, and as a result, people can contribute to establishing common ways to dispel those perceptions.

Another thing companies should do is eliminate the long-hours norm. When “hours spent at work” is an indicator of one’s worth, women are at a loss right from the start. They’re still the ones caring for their families and needing to be there for their children or elder parents, even if they can continue working at home during the evenings once they’ve picked up kids from school or have put them to bed.

Related to this, companies need to welcome women back from their maternity leaves. By that, we mean accommodating shorter work hours as a transition, allow adjustment time, and a more extended period for women to qualify for leadership roles. It goes hand in hand with encouraging male participation in family-friendly benefits so that the gap women need to overcome when they’re back in the workplace is a smaller one.

Also, other practices and benefits could increase women’s participation in a job, such as flextime, telework, and telecommuting, job sharing, employer-sponsored on-site child care, elder care provisions, adoption benefits or dependent child care options.

Moving on, companies should prepare women for line management and top leadership positions by working with a clear career path and gradually increasing the demands and responsibilities assigned. Many companies fall into the trap of dispersing women as much as possible in all teams across the business. When so outnumbered, sometimes being the only woman in a group, women’s ability to influence drops to close to nothing. A woman can’t fight a team of men on her own. The same goes for executive positions; women need not be a small minority to have a real voice.

What can women do?

Women can only play on their strengths, as managers, or on their way up to leadership roles. They need to inspire, support, and empower their women peers, managers, and direct reports. Play mentor, coach, or evaluate how they can help the women around them. On top of the contribution within a company, they can also be part of a local women community where women can help each other play a more significant role.

Further reading

[1] https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-management/

[2] https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/barrier-bias/

[3] Bass & Riggio, 2006, as cited in Matsa & Miller, 2013

[4] Women Matter report