Will Women Leaders Influence the Way We Work?

How important is leadership gender in influencing the way we work?

By James Heskett
Published: May 29, 2013

Summing Up
Any attempt to describe behaviors on the basis of gender runs the risk of stereotyping, generalizing, and generally oversimplifying. As Susan Chipman said in response to this month's inquiry about the impact of women leaders on work, "it is extremely naive to expect that stereotypical ideas about what women in general are like will have any meaning for the behavior of women in senior management positions. Women who arrive in such positions will be very atypical…."

The discussion stimulated by this month's question of whether or not women as leaders will have a special influence on the way we work stirred a strong feeling among respondents that the discussion is a necessary one regardless of the potential minefield that the topic represents.

Rajini McRae's comment was characteristic. "Absolutely we should be asking the question, as like it or not … our approach in leadership and problem solving are different." Respondents were pretty well split down the middle on the question, although there was apparently little doubt in Judy B's mind. "Of course we will…. Now can we move on to the next (question) … already???"

Others were split on whether the gender of the leader matters. And there didn't appear to be a discernable difference in the opinions of men and women among the thoughtful responses.

Clara Tenby commented that "The main difference I feel between men and women in the work place is that generally we have more patience and a 'nicer' way of putting things-good or bad!" Kapil Sopory added that "women display better … problem solving skill and organizational loyalty than men. They are generally as balanced as men emotionally." Jo Lager agreed but felt that the lines are not finely drawn. As she put it: "Men and women are variations on a theme, not opposites…. It is possible, and I think likely, that the male-dominated business world selects as leaders women who demonstrate traits that are closer to the masculine norm."

Cheri Thomas objected to such generalizations and stereotyping, saying that "Typifying women as 'more sensitive' and 'consensus building' sets up expectations that don't fit women in leadership roles…. In all cases, to be fair and accurate, you have to look at the person, not the generalization." And John Croft felt that "the idea of different leadership styles among men and women is poorly thought through…. People forget that leadership is about the people being led, not the leader…. I think you would only find sex-based leadership differences when those being led are all men or all women."

Marlis Krichewsky presented an interesting hypothesis when she classified male and female managers in three groups: those who conform to the gender role model, those who imitate the role model of the other gender, and those who are "'integral human beings' profoundly accepting and developing their double nature: male-female. Only the third group of people are 'good' leaders with complex thinking, agility and sensitivity."

It prompts the question: How important is leadership gender in influencing the way we work? What do you think?

Original Article
Harvard Business School is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the admission of women into its MBA program. A few have made it into CEO positions at major corporations. More have founded and lead their own start-ups. They're coming along, in spite of the much talked about obstacles and high attrition rates along the road.

One of them, Sheryl Sandberg (COO) has written a book, Lean In, about which everyone seems to have an opinion. It coincides with the actions of Marissa Mayer to discourage telecommuting at Yahoo!, where she recently became CEO. The intent here is not to replow the argument about whether these two outstanding executives represent the best or worst of feminism. It is to speculate on the influence that a future populated by female leadership in a significant number of organizations will have on the way we work.

A number of arguments have been made that women in leadership exhibit different decision-making behaviors than men. They are, for example, said to be more willing to examine several sides of an issue before acting, more sensitive to the needs of others, and more inclusive and transparent in their communication of information. Unfortunately, there is no substantial empirical evidence for this, in part because the sample size is so small.

Several have argued that if we are to tap the potential of people with a variety of backgrounds and demands on their time, we need to rethink work. Among other things, the argument maintains that work needs to be chunked out in tasks that can be pursued on a part-time basis with a workload designed accordingly and an emphasis on the quality vs. the quantity of work accomplished.

More important, those climbing the ladder in this manner must not be penalized for doing it this way. The point is that organizations will, as a result, be just as productive and also able to choose leadership from a much broader pool of talent, one presumably containing more women (or men) with multiple commitments. The implication is that women in leadership will be more likely than men to rethink work in this fashion.

Sandberg's advice largely assumes that work will not be rethought. Instead, women will have to "lean in" and face the long hours and judgments regarding the quantity of work as well as the quality of work they are able to do. If a family is in the picture, it may require a devoted and supporting spouse willing to share household responsibilities.

Mayer's action similarly relegates the age-old debate about work-life balance to the back burner, commanding her legions to prepare to abandon their far-flung work spaces and return to Yahoo! offices for important collaboration essential to innovation.

What this minute sample perhaps suggests is that we should be careful about jumping to conclusions about the effects of female leadership on work life.

Assume that we are slowly progressing toward a tipping point at which sitting female CEOs will pave the way for other women, just as their male counterparts have done for men. The result may be an accelerating pace toward a critical mass of top jobs occupied by women, encouraging aspirants (with or without MBAs) in their efforts to build similar careers. As employees of these organizations, will we notice a difference? How will female leadership influence the way we work? Should I even be asking the question? What do you think?

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

  • Sunil

    Comparing gender specific leadership is one of the despicable approaches with regards to knowing who leads well. My professional involvement with corporate world and the subsequent working experience with both male and female boss conclude that both inherit individual dexterity of leadership. I barely pay much heed to which gender of individual is my boss, but surely how me along with the team mates and company (we work in) are influenced and led to. While some female bosses inherit tremendous intelligence and problem-solving dexterity, others are just bull in a China shop. Similarly, the aforesaid applies with all weight on male bosses, too. Also, men feel being psychologically chivalrous before women in charge. So, having female boss makes them a bit dismayed as compared to dealing with male boss. Meanwhile, personality of both male and female boss matters considerably a lot in the context of leading.

    on May 29, 2013
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