The latest research shows that employees are happier in their jobs when they’re led by a woman, but experts say that being an effective leader has more to do with trust than with gender.
Women are shaping the future of leadership and transforming the workplace. Compared to low representation in the 1970s, women now outnumber men in the workforce and hold 41% of managerial roles.
“We’ve seen improvements,” says Caitlin Sockbeson, Assistant Professor of Management at the Davis College of Business at Jacksonville University. But when Sockbeson examines trends in upper levels of management, “it’s not looking quite as rosy.” Women remain vastly underrepresented at the highest corporate levels, to say nothing of the disparities in other industries, like the trades. And the percentage of women of color in executive leadership roles is even lower than that of white women.
This isn’t bad news solely for women. It’s bad for all of us. Recent research has indicated that women may hold certain advantages over men in terms of leadership styles, reminding us that we have a lot to learn from many women in power. Still, the work of addressing gender imbalances and creating healthier, more fair, and engaged workplaces goes beyond putting more women in leadership roles. Experts say we also need to explore our ingrained ideas about what (or who) makes a leader, so we can all (regardless of gender) cultivate the leadership qualities proven to contribute to healthier and more equitable work environments.
Gender and Leadership
There are theoretical arguments as to why women are still underrepresented at the top. Earlier research showed that gender stereotypes disadvantage women, fueling uncertainty about women’s abilities to lead effectively.
“Some of those strong stereotypes—what we call the ‘Think Manager, Think Male’ stereotype— do still persist to a certain degree,” says Sockbeson. Yet, “we have seen that weakening over time, as more women move into management roles, and people become used to seeing women in leadership.”
Another factor at play might be something called “shifting standards.” Sockbeson explains this using an example: When two leaders (one man, one woman) are being rated for their effectiveness, people tend to rate them against the “standard” for each gender. So, women are rated against female standards, and men are rated against male standards. “But if I had to choose, I might actually choose the man for promotion,” says Sockbeson. This is because people are not making a comparison to an objective or overall standard, and the standards for men and women are different.
Women leaders tend to take more action to advance the well-being of their employees, and spend more time on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
One large meta-analysis found that when all workplace contexts are taken together, men and women do not differ in perceived leadership effectiveness. Yet when ratings from other people (employees or colleagues) are examined, women are seen as significantly more effective than men. In contrast, when self-ratings are explored, men tend to rate themselves more positively than women rate themselves.
This may be in part because women are often socialized to prioritize communication and collaboration with others, and this way of relating extends to their treatment of colleagues. Similarly, research has shown that women leaders tend to take more action to advance the well-being of their employees, and spend more time on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Scientific studies have found that individuals who engage in “communal” behaviors build a more respectful workplace, where engagement and collaboration are just as important as the bottom line. “The pandemic has brought this to the forefront—that leaders need to be more empathetic and people centered,” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
The Cost of Calling Women “Better” Leaders
Popular media and survey data has emphasized this gender advantage to show that employees are more engaged in their job and perform better when they are led by a woman. However, says Kanter, “These gender differences are small and they’re at the margin, so they do not refer to every woman and every man.”
There’s also a paradox when it comes to praising women for possessing certain leadership qualities that men supposedly don’t: Kanter says that when leadership attributes are seen as more “feminine” (compared with task focused and goal-oriented leadership styles that are supposedly “masculine”), this can reinforce existing stereotypes—or even contribute to new ones. Instead, all leaders should be encouraged and given the tools to cultivate skills such as emotional intelligence, collaboration, and inclusivity, regardless of gender.
The literature also recognizes an important caveat to all these findings: The critical work women do in developing healthy and safe workplaces may be going overlooked. Women take on more than their fair share of emotional labor (or what some call “mental load”) in the home, and it appears that this is happening in the workplace too. The evidence underscores the fact that women behave in more prosocial ways when they are in power than men in power typically do, which contributes to a higher risk of burnout for women.
“Women have to be very strategic about saying no,” says Clare Beckton, author and Executive in Residence at the Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work at Carleton University. “In the new leadership paradigm, men have to be out there supporting their teams as well.”
Trust, Inclusion, and Belonging
When it comes to creating inclusive and supportive work environments, “leaders do have to be self-aware and aware of what is happening within their teams and taking the time to get to know each team member,” says Beckton. “That requires a leader to have emotional intelligence.”
Beckton says that a key piece to effective leadership is something called a “circle of trust.” Leaders who are more traditional will include “the good old boys” in their circle of trust, who are people they feel most comfortable around. To counter this, Beckton says, we “need to bring people in who challenge our ideas and have diverse ways of thinking.” This should involve the whole team, rather than one token DEI representative who can end up shouldering a heavy burden of responsibility.
Widening our circles of communication and trust at work may not be easy, but emotional intelligence goes a long way. Carley Hauck is an organizational and leadership development consultant and instructor at Stanford University, and has consulted with organizations throughout the US. She says that the collaborative approach to leadership is sometimes viewed as bad for business.
“Toxic environments also aren’t good for business,” she counters. “Toxicity comes from the acculturation of emotions, such as sadness or fear of being seen as weak—being seen as feminine.”
She defines this as the “genderization of emotion,” which has led to workplace cultures where aggression and stoicism are rewarded. Importantly, Hauck has seen a major shift in this trend over the past few years. She recalls a recent workshop where men were willing to share their emotions and be vulnerable, which created a safe space for others in the group to do the same.
Being able to understand and manage your emotions starts with self-awareness, one of the core components of emotional intelligence. Research shows that this kind of self-awareness can ultimately motivate men to shift their behavior, opening the door for more collaborative and kind leadership.
Why Emotional Attunement Matters
When it comes to developing excellence in leadership, regardless of gender, “One thing that has to change is our story about women,” says Kanter. Changing our stories means moving beyond entrenched ideas about what makes the “ideal” male or female leader. “What we need is people with solutions and the optimism to get working on them,” says Kanter.
Research shows that mindfulness can increase optimism and positive feelings, as well as emotional intelligence, which can in turn encourage transformational leadership behaviors. In a 2019 study of 57 organizational teams from Germany, researchers found that leaders who participated in a mindfulness intervention showed stronger transformational and lower abusive leadership behaviors when rated by their employees, compared to a control group. A transformational leadership style uses mentorship rather than a reliance on hierarchical power structures of “boss knows best.” Leaders who adopt this style harness their emotional intelligence to motivate their employees to find creative solutions for the problems they face.
A transformational leadership style uses mentorship rather than a reliance on hierarchical power structures of “boss knows best.”
Sockbeson says that leaders need to inspire change and get their people behind a bigger vision for the organization. However, there is no magic bullet: “Sometimes, it’s the adaptability of the leader to be able to shift those behaviors a little bit as needed, depending on the context, that may help them be effective.”
Being an effective leader may require us to move beyond the binary of “masculine” or “feminine,” to find an approach that is both flexible and inspirational. Recognizing the real strengths that emotionally attuned leaders bring to the table, valuing them, and choosing to learn from them can help build a workplace where everyone can thrive.
Creating Brave Space at Work
There is consensus among those who study organizational psychology that compassion at work matters. Workplaces are not devoid of emotion, nor are they places where we can check our personal baggage at the door. When managers and colleagues learn to meet difficult emotions with empathy and openness, they create space for compassion. And compassion breeds trust.
Compassion builds workplaces that are psychologically safe, which even Google has rated as the number one predictor of a high performing team. “Because then we feel like we can be our authentic selves—without criticism, without reprimand and shaming, and without exclusion,” says Carley Hauck. “And it’s the catalyst for trust.”
Research shows that creating a climate where managers trust their employees (and vice versa) can reduce errors, and motivates employees to ask tough questions and take risks: what many experts define not as safe space, but brave space. Hauck says leaders need to model emotional regulation and give people permission to express their emotions at work, without fear of disapproval from colleagues or leaders.
“They start to acknowledge their humanness; they start to care for each other. And then what happens? Innovation, collaboration goes up, trust goes up, and they create this kind of emotional bank account.” A higher “bank balance” results in a strong level of trust, and the overall quality of work improves.