Are women better leaders than men?

According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, women outpaced men in twelve of sixteen competencies associated with perceived leadership ability.

For years and years, the stereotype that men are superior leaders seems to have driven hiring decisions, elections, promotions, and much more. But could research debunk the male myth?

Okay, so it’s not that simple. Any metric that would measure leadership is inherently subjective, and leadership qualities should be assessed on an individual basis. However, research conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of the Harvard Business Review sought to establish such metrics in order to gauge leadership qualities between the sexes. The data was based on evaluations that track a leader’s ability according to direct reports, bosses, and peers. These evaluations encompass surveys of 7,280 leaders from public, private, government, and commercial companies from around the globe.

The study accounted for sixteen different leadership competencies and asked those surveyed to say whether their leader possessed the competency or not. While the results were tight across the sexes, the numbers revealed that in twelve of sixteen competencies, more women than men possessed the trait.

Have a look:

CompetencyMale Mean %Female Mean %
Takes Initiative4856
Practices Self Development4855
Displays High Integrity and Honesty4855
Drives for Results4854
Develops Others4854
Inspires and Motivates Others4954
Builds Relationships4954
Collaboration and Teamwork4953
Establishes Stretch Goals4953
Champions Change4953
Solves Problems and Analyzes Issues5052
Communicates Powerfully and Prolifically5052
Connects the Group to Outside World5051
Innovates5051
Technical or Professional Expertise5051
Develops Strategic Perspective5149

These numbers are compelling. In twelve of the sixteen competencies, women significantly outpaced men, even in stereotypically masculine categories like takes initiative and drives for results. For the competencies in which men tied or outpaced women, such as technical or professional expertise, one wonders whether women truly display less technical expertise or if this is another unfortunate symptom of implicit bias.

So what can we learn from these numbers? Namely, that women make excellent leaders, a supposition now supported by scholastic evidence. But I’d like to take a moment and raise a few questions as to what may have driven these results.

First, for categories such as develops others, inspires and motivates others, and builds relationships, it’s hard not to consider the naturally maternal qualities that may manifest in such characteristics. Alternatively, it could be the implicit bias associated with women in positions of leaderships– that employees expect women managers to be nurturing, so that is a quality that they pay attention to. On the other hand, this expectation may lead to the harmful stereotypes placed on women who lack these nurturing qualities, as compared to men. You know the stereotypes I’m talking about.

Second, for competencies such as practices self development, takes initiative, and champions change, one word comes to mind: effort. Women in the workplace have long espoused the grievance that they have to work much harder than men to be respected. Could it be that the results of this study are the first fruits of this labor, recognized?

Although no survey could reach a satisfying or definitive answer about the subjective nature of leadership merit, the results here are helpful in recognizing that the argument of women making bad leaders is dead and buried. And now… we have the numbers to prove it.

1 thought on “Are women better leaders than men?”

  1. This is a great article. The parameters, comprehensive list of competencies, and stamp of Harvard are exciting and significant, but I was most intrigued by the fact the study was conducted by men (although that is overall unsurprising).
    Near the end of her article, Loveless writes about women’s effort in the workplace. It’s an empowering and, perhaps, ironic message to know that implicit bias has only made women better leaders.
    Can’t wait to read more by Miss CV!

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