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Beyond Gender: Changing the Leadership Conversation

by Thuy Sindell, PhD. and Milo Sindell, MS.

We know there is a gender problem in the workplace, especially when it comes to leadership positions. While women make up 53 percent of entry-level employees, there’s a serious lack of women leaders. According to a 2015 analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, women account for just 24 percent of senior vice presidents and 19 percent of C-suite executives.

Both men and women agree that bias has a lot to do with why are there so few women in leadership positions. In a 2015 Pew Research study, 40 percent of Americans agreed that there is a double standard for women seeking to achieve the highest levels in either politics or business. The same study found that 52 percent of women and 33 percent of men agree that the double standard exists.

This is old news. Employers, employees, men, and women all know there’s a problem. We know there’s a lack of women leaders. We know that bias is part of the problem. So if we acknowledge these problems in the workplace, why can’t we get past them?

The answer to that question and the issues themselves are complicated. Getting past the problem requires changing the conversation and moving beyond gender and exploring what truly effective leadership behaviors are.

The Benefits of Female Leadership

The lack of women in leadership may have begun with the perception that they are ineffective leaders, but that’s not the case today. Although men were once thought to possess the qualities of great leaders, businesses now recognize the valuable traits women bring to leadership positions.

Gallup’s 2015 State Of The American Manager Report found both male and female employees with women leaders reported higher engagement than those working for male bosses. In fact, female bosses outscored males in 11 of 12 engagement categories, including being supportive in areas like employee progress and development.

Employees also trust female leaders more than male leaders, according to research conducted in 2014 by Pew. In the survey, 31 percent of people considered women in top positions in business to be more honest and ethical than men, as opposed to just 3 percent who said the opposite.

And all these positive leadership qualities have a significant impact on the business. A 2015 study published by MCSI ESG Research found that companies with three or more women on the board of directors deliver a 36 percent higher return on equity.

Recognizing the valuable traits of women leaders as more females ascended the ranks, employers trained men in leadership to adopt these qualities. They pushed men to be more communicative and caring leaders. They emphasized the importance of collaboration and positive reinforcement.

While this training helped men develop into better leaders, it did nothing for women. Women were never encouraged and trained to adopt the effective leadership traits of men. Women were not pushed to become confident, to take risks, and to be decisive, which has led to the effectiveness vs. likeability problem.

The Effectiveness vs. Likeability Problem

Women can either be effective leaders or well-liked leaders, but society generally won’t let them be both. This is the effectiveness vs. likeability problem.

Women who adopt the same behaviors as men to drive success are typically seen as less likeable. As a result, some women believe they have to choose between being disliked and effective or well-liked and ineffective. But even when women do adopt male behavior to be more effective leaders, they are still viewed as less competent.

Research conducted by Skyline Group International and the Organizational Intelligence Institute found a significantly lower perception of effectiveness when women expressed the masculine behavior in 57 percent of the 28 leadership competencies studied. In comparison, men were perceived significantly poorer when utilizing the feminine approach in just 39 percent of competencies.

What’s more, female peers may be the most critical of women who adopt masculine traits. For 43 percent of the competencies where women expressed the masculine version of the trait, only women rated other women as less effective.

Women leaders are stuck between a rock and a hard place. No matter what they do to become better leaders, they receive criticism. They are seen as too bossy or too soft. While men are encouraged to blend masculine and feminine traits, women are caught between a push and pull. They are told to be more masculine—but not too much. They are told to stay true to their feminine qualities—but not too much. Women are expected to master a balancing act between gendered behaviors, without being given the tools and development to do so.

The Conversation Is Stuck

This is where the women in leadership conversation usually ends. We know there’s a problem. We know there are unrealistic expectations for women leaders. We know there is bias and long-held gender beliefs. We know that it is not fair. We know women have to do and overcome more to even get into leadership positions.

Women are expected to master a balancing act between gendered behaviors, without being given the tools and development to do so.

These issues are well recognized. But the conversation never moves to the next step and asks what can be done to make the path easier. The current conversation is centered on the unfair bias. It focuses on trying to dismantle and change the system. It looks at trying to change the opinions of others. And that’s just impossible. Individuals can only control and change their own actions.

These conversations can’t go anywhere. The system can’t change overnight, and trying to change the minds of others is futile. We’re so focused on the problem, we can’t come up with realistic solutions that will make an immediate impact.

We need to move the conversation beyond gender and instead look at developing well-balanced leaders - what all leaders, male and female, can do to become more effective. The solution isn’t as simple as telling women to adopt more masculine traits. Leadership competencies exist on a spectrum, and leaders need to understand when acting in a masculine or feminine way will be more effective.

The Leadership Spectrum

There is a masculine and feminine way in which each leadership trait manifests itself. According to Skyline’s research, both men and women agreed that there is a significant and recognizable gender continuum on 27 of the 28 competencies.

Here’s an example. Listening is typically seen as a female skill, but it actually has a masculine and feminine expression. The masculine expression is listening for content and clarity. In other words, when men listen, they understand what people are telling them and can summarize the speaker’s main points. The feminine expression is listening for emotional context and connection. Women tend to listen to and sympathize with the emotions behind what someone is saying. They console, support, or show another emotional reaction to the speaker.

While masculine and feminine expressions of leadership qualities are different, one isn’t necessarily better than the other—rather both are essential to effective leadership. In fact, our survey participants rated more than 70 percent of leadership competencies, both masculine and feminine expressions, as equally effective.

So if masculine and feminine expressions are equally effective, why are women who adopt masculine behaviors viewed negatively? And why are those who only express feminine behaviors seen as weak?

It all comes down to context. The perception of leadership effectiveness depends on who you are working with and the needs of the situation. To be an effective leader, you need to adapt your behaviors based on your audience, your approach, and your gender simultaneously. This requires leaders to be more balanced and to be able to develop and use both the masculine and feminine expressions of a competency, depending on what is needed, instead of relying on one default set of behaviors.

Becoming Balanced

Whatever their gender, leaders need balance. They need to understand their audience and the situation to take the best approach. That means leaders need to be aware of where and with whom their likeability or effectiveness will suffer.

How do leaders know when feminine or masculine expression of a leadership competency will be more effective? In general, women who typically express more masculine behaviors can be more effective with other women by being more balanced and adopting additional feminine expressions. This also means that women who have a tendency to express mostly feminine behaviors can express more masculine behaviors when needed to be more effective.

More specifically, here’s what our research found:

  • When feminine expression is more effective for women leaders. Both men and women agree that the feminine expression of emotional control—acknowledging emotions and appropriately expressing them—is more than 40 percent more effective than the masculine version—ignoring emotions and holding them in.

That means women have an advantage here. In this area as well as with self- confidence, executive presence, conflict resolution, creativity and innovation, and entrepreneurship, women should be aware of and constantly strive for the feminine expression.

  • When masculine expression is less effective for women leaders. When women adhere strictly to the rules, they are perceived poorly by other women. Female peers also view women leaders negatively when they take a structured and logical approach to leading the organization. In fact, the more detailed, directive, and structured women are, the more negatively other women view them. Further, when women adopt the masculine approach of giving feedback and guidance instead of one of exploration and challenging assumptions, they are perceived more negatively by women. In addition, both men and women view women negatively when they show assertiveness with direct and clear requests. Taking a more directive approach to driving results is also viewed negatively by both men and women. However, when building networks, women will have a more negative perception of another woman actively building her network, but men will see it as equally effective as the typical feminine approach of building strong relationships with key stakeholders. Women will also be seen as less effective when they adopt the masculine expression of positioning the merit of ideas and leveraging authority when influencing others. Given that the feminine expression of positioning “what’s in it for me with stakeholders” is more effective, they should consider staying with that approach.
  • When masculine expression is more effective for women leaders. The masculine expression of inspirational vision was rated as significantly more effective than the feminine expression. This suggests women should adopt a more energetic and excitement-driven approach to communicating vision rather than trying to connect using emotion and individual conversations to inspire.

Every situation is different. But if leaders adapt their behavior to meet the needs of their audience, they will be more balanced and effective.

Adopting Balanced Development

Leaders won’t magically become more balanced because we tell them they need to be. They need the right development and training.

After all, men have been supported and rewarded for developing both aspects of their leadership behaviors for decades. We need to do the same for women.

Start by reviewing how you treat leaders in your organization. Are you doing everything you can to support your female leaders, especially when they successfully deliver results in a way that could be considered masculine? Are you rewarding both men and women leaders who are balanced in their ability to express both masculine and feminine behaviors?

Next, review your leadership development program. Do you incorporate a balanced approach to gender expression?

Sit down with successful women leaders in your organization and talk about the traits that make them effective. Use their insights to determine the best ways to help other women leaders become more balanced.

The conversation about gender in leadership is complex. It goes beyond the inequalities and biases we know exist. To impact real change in the workplace and develop more effective leaders, we need to focus the conversation on what we can do.

We can find ways to better support and develop women leaders. We can train all leaders to take a more balanced approach. We can focus on our own skills and qualities to be-come the best leaders and professionals we can possibly be.

It’s time to move the conversation and take action. Let’s stop talking about the problems with gender and leadership and start focusing on realistic solutions. Are your leaders more masculine or feminine? How could they be more balanced?

Thuy Sindell is a principal at Skyline Group International and Stacy Shamberger is executive vice president at Skyline Group International, which provides scalable leadership solutions and executive coaching.


Paustian-Underdahl, Slattery Walker, L. & Woehr, D. Gender and Perceptions of Leadership Effectiveness: A Meta-Analysis of Contexutal Moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2014, Vol 99, No. 6, 1129–1145.

Women and Leadership: Public Says Women Are Equally Qualified, but Barriers Persist. Pew Research Center. Jan. 14, 2014.

State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders. Gallup. 2015. .

Lee, L.E., Marshall, R., Rallis, D. & Moscardi, M. Women on Boards: Global Trends in Gender Diversity on Corporate Boards. Research Insights. MSCI ESG Research. 2015.

Skyline Group International and Organizational Intelligence Institute.

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