Do Women Make Better Leaders?

Are men and women’s leadership styles really all that different? Much has been written in business literature over the past 20 years about the differences in the way the genders lead. Research shows that women have a more collaborative, intuitive, nurturing, and empathetic style, while men prefer a more top-down, fact-based, linear, and task-oriented approach.

Until recently, there hasn’t been enough of a sampling to test this assumption. But more and more women have moved into leadership positions, and as they become managers, the differences in style show up.

I believe that the differences can, in large part, be attributed to the way we socialize girls and boys. Even though some attitudes around gender roles are fading, the vestiges remain strong enough to affect perceptions and behavior. Men are “supposed” to be strong and assertive, whereas woman “should” be softer and gentler.

In focus groups with women, I often hear them say they are caught in a catch-22. If they are perceived as too assertive or direct, they are branded with the b word. If they are not assertive enough, they are labeled weak leaders. In our society, it is still hard for women to be considered both “nice” and “competent.” By the same standards, studies show that if men are viewed as nurturing and empathic, they are thought to be weak leaders as well.

Further, there are some nuances to the biases around women of color. According to a Catalyst Survey, Advancing African American Women in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Know, African-American women are labeled aggressive, angry, and defensive even before they might be tapped for leadership. Asian women are often viewed in Western culture as passive and therefore not leadership material. Latino women are seen either as too “sexy” or as not particularly interested in advancing.

Given that the barriers involve complex issues deeply rooted in centuries-old norms, how can we embrace an inclusive mind-set about men’s and women’s different leadership styles, appreciate and accept the differences, and find ways to leverage them?

Here are five simple, but challenging, recommendations.

• Understand the differences in the perceptions of Caucasian, African-American, Asian, and Latino women and how those perceptions can impact the ability of women to break into leadership positions.

• Understand that a good leader has both traditionally male and traditionally female leadership qualities. It is not an either-or. The styles are complementary.

• Be conscious of your own biases about gender roles and do the work necessary to change your thinking and behavior.

• Know your own leadership style and learn to adapt it to fit different situations. Sometimes leaders need to be direct and firm. At other times, empathy and compassion are most needed.

• Be yourself. Situational adaptation does not mean losing the strength of your natural style. By knowing your style, you can work at making it even better.

Mary-Frances Winters is the president and CEO of the Winters Group, Inc.

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