Historically, there has been some debate about women’s performance within leadership roles, with sceptics arguing women’s skills do not naturally suit leadership positions. As disappointing as this debate may be, it has catalysed research that has undeniably proven women’s effective contributions in global leadership positions. Gender diversity in leadership is not merely a matter of achieving equality; it is about harnessing the full potential of diverse voices and experiences. The traditional leadership landscape has long favoured assertiveness, competition, and hierarchical decision-making. However, a growing body of research has shown that women excel in these areas and bring alternative leadership styles that yield remarkable results.
This blog will first examine the evidence of women’s superior leadership performances both politically and in a corporate context. Then, we will discuss some explanations behind this research.
Female Leaders in Politics
Female leaders in political crises demonstrate impressive resilience, adaptability, and strategic thinking in navigating tumultuous times. Women’s ability to foster cooperation, empathy and inclusive decision-making has proven instrumental in crisis response and recovery. This paragraph will examine how female leaders outperformed their male counterparts during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Research has shown that countries led by women had ‘systematically and significantly better’ COVID-19 outcomes, demonstrating that by locking down earlier, female-led countries suffered half as many deaths on average as those led by men. Initially, when the pandemic first hit, the relative early success of countries like Germany, New Zealand, Denmark and Taiwan attracted many headlines and now academic attention. An analysis of 194 countries, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, suggests the difference is real and ‘may be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy responses’ adopted by female leaders.
Looking at the death countries endured during the pandemic illustrates this point. Of course, there are various factors when considering how intensely COVID-19 affected the population, including climate, population density, the average age, and so on. For this study, similar countries were selected to compare to account for such differences.
As illustrated above, countries with female leaders avoided far more deaths than their male equivalents. Even after removing explicit and frequently cited outliers like New Zealand, Germany or the US for male leaders, the study found that the case for female leaders’ relative success was only strengthened. One core reason cited was:
‘In almost all cases, they locked down earlier than male leaders in similar circumstances. While this may have longer-term economic implications, it has helped these countries save lives, as evidenced by the significantly lower number of deaths in these countries.’
Many of these differences stem from women leaders being risk-averse regarding people’s lives and more willing to take risks in an economic context. Looking at Taiwan illustrates this point. The decisiveness of Tsai Ing-wen marked one of the fastest responses to the illness globally, introducing 124 measures to block the spread, meaning lockdown was entirely avoidable. The leader also sent 10 million face masks to Europe and the US, with CNN describing the response as ‘among the world’s best.’
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, followed a similar path, imposing self-isolation on people entering New Zealand after just 6 cases. The clarity and decisiveness of these leaders contributed towards their significantly lower death rate. Moreover, uniquely utilising technology is another contributing factor. Sanna Marin, the world’s youngest head of state, led Finland through the pandemic using social media influencers to raise awareness, spread fact-based information and reach the younger demographic who were so crucial to stopping the spread.
Decisiveness, clarity in communication and effective utilisation of technology have historically been viewed as more naturally occurring in men. This crisis highlighted that female leaders not only excel at stereotypically male qualities but can also incorporate what may be perceived as typical female characteristics, harnessing empathy and emotional connection to their advantage. Most pertinently, Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway, had the innovative idea of using television to talk directly to her country’s children. During this press conference, no adults were allowed, and she responded only to kids’ questions, taking time to explain why it was OK to feel scared.
Researchers, therefore, suggested that women leaders implemented ‘better policies and compliance.’ Building upon this, another study in the US found that female governors also experienced fewer deaths than their male counterparts across the board, reinforcing these findings.
Female Leaders in Business
Similarly to politics, within the business world, there is a growing body of research, literature and case studies which suggest female leaders typically outperform their male counterparts. The financial benefits of diversity and inclusion are well-researched, both regarding gender and race. Pipeline’s ‘Women Count 2020 report’ shows that companies with no women on their executive committees have a net profit of 1.5%. In contrast, those with one in three reach 15.2%. The higher engagement could partly explain this that female managers generally foster among their workforce, as evidenced by Gallup in 2015.
To fully comprehend why this may be the case, Harvard Business Review analysed thousands of 360-degree reviews, finding that women outscored men on 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones. Women scored highest on taking the initiative, resilience and self-development practices, among many other qualities, with men only surpassing them on ‘technical/professional expertise’ and developing a strategic perspective.
A sweeping meta-analysis from Florida International University examined 99 data sets from academic research sources, finding that women and men do not differ in their perceived effectiveness as leaders. Through reading feedback on leaders and the extent to which they are judged capable and competent, no statistical differences were found between men and women.
Additionally, women perform well in various elements considered crucial in leadership positions. A new study of 423 companies in North America found that women are better than men at providing emotional support to employees and checking in on the well-being of employees. Moreover, they are rated more highly in regards to helping employees navigate work-life challenges and taking action to prevent employee burnout. Women also spend more time contributing to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
In addition, people generally prefer having women as their leaders. A recent study from ResumeLab finds that 38% of people prefer to work for a female boss compared with 26% of people who like to work for a man. In addition, 35% of respondents have no preference. When asked directly, 38% stated they believed women outperform men, while 35% believed men are better in leadership roles.
One possible explanation for this is women’s lack of confidence, especially at the beginning of their careers, which is well documented and contributes towards male domination in specific industries. When asked to assess themselves, women are less generous than their external assessors. Based on data collected since 2016, there is the most significant confidence gap between men and women for those under 25, with the rating eventually merging at 40. However, over 60, the opposite happens where women are increasingly confident, but a decline in male confidence is noticed. Women’s confidence increases by 29% over a lifetime, but men’s by just 8.5%. It’s possible that lacking this confidence at a younger age motivates women to take more initiative, be more resilient, and take feedback on more, curating them into more effective leaders in the long run.
Another explanation could be that due to the prejudice and discrimination women endure, especially in the business and technology world, only the strongest, bravest and smartest make it to the top. Of the FTSE 350 companies, 15% of them have no female executives at all, despite all the evidence above. There were the same number of female chief executives in the largest 100 London-listed companies as bosses named Peter (six). Moreover, several studies support the notion that women are held to higher standards than men regarding leadership, meaning their potential is often overlooked. Essentially, due to such discrimination, female leaders have no room for fault, and those who have made it to the top have done so purely based on merit.
Of course, gender is just among many factors that influence firm performance, however, the evidence is irrefutable that women in leadership roles, for whatever reason, produce more favourable outcomes. Conscious or unconscious bias is now holding back an organisation’s financial performance as well as gender equality. So, maybe it’s time for a mindset shift. Instead of encouraging women to become more similar to men by being louder and more confident, we should be encouraging men to learn a little something from these remarkable female leaders.
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