Myth 23: Male and Female Leaders are Different
10th May 2018 | Jo Owen
We know what leaders are like: Characters and traits
The nature of the myth
A good way to sell books and get media attention is to show that men and women lead in fundamentally different ways: ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’1 is not just the message: it is also the title of a bestselling book.
Research may be more boring, but is also more useful. Even in a posttruth world, it can pay to act on the basis of evidence as opposed to belief. The research is nuanced.2 There are differences, but not as dramatic as the popular press might want to show. An early landmark meta-analysis by Professor Alice Eagly3 found that in real organizational life, the differences between male and female stereotypes were small. In laboratory conditions, the stereotypes became more pronounced.
Why this matters
Gender differences, or lack of them, matter from at least three perspectives.
Building a balanced leadership team
Clearly, if the popular view of gender differences is accurate than that has major implications for picking and developing leaders. It would mean that some leadership roles should be the sole preserve of women, and others should be the sole preserve of men. Some roles require high risk taking (male) while others require excellent interpersonal skills (women).
If the reality is more nuanced, you will still need a balanced team in terms of styles. The gender stereotypes illustrate a few of the major style differences, but they are not the only ones.
Developing leaders of the future
If there are gender differences, then one-size-fits-all leadership development can lead to very unequal outcomes.
The gender debate will continue for many decades. It is for you to decide how far the stereotypes are true and what should be done about them: this book focuses on the implications for you as a leader.
Lessons for leaders
Here are four lessons we can draw:
Build a balanced team
The different stereotypes highlight the need to achieve a balanced leadership team. If the whole team is made up of risk junkies, it may succeed fast but it is also likely to crash fast. Achieving balance of talents and styles is vital.
Understand your own style
Regardless of your gender, it is worth thinking about how far you are task focused or people focused; democratic or autocratic; risk taking and assertive; or cautious and supportive. It is usual to say that there is no wrong or right style, but that is misleading. Universally, there may be no wrong or right style, but in your specific context there will be a style which works better than others. You have to find a context to work in which your style succeeds.
Promotions do not go to the meek
You have to be prepared to push yourself. Don’t wait until you are 100 per cent confident you can step up, because you can never be 100 per cent ready for your next role.
Respect people for who they are
Perhaps the most important lesson for leaders is to respect people for who they are, not for their DNA or chromosomes. How far we should discriminate in favour of one group (and by implication against another group) on the basis of their DNA is a public policy matter on which everyone will have their views.
We live in a post-truth world where people believe what they want to believe. There clearly are gender differences, but there is disagreement about how great the differences are, whether they matter, and what should be done about it. You have to make your own mind up on this one. You decide how many unicorns to award here.
1. John Gray (1992) Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: A practical guide for improving communication and getting what you want in your relationships, Harpercollins
2. A good review of the research can be found here.
3. Alice Eagly and Blair Johnson (1990) Gender and leadership style: a metaanalysis, Psychological Bulletin, 108 (2).