Women in Leadership 2023: The Challenges, Benefits & Development of Female Leadership in the Workplace
Beyond Gender: Changing the Leadership Conversation by Thuy Sindell
When it comes to women in leadership, we know there is a gender bias problem in the workplace, especially when it comes to leadership positions.
In this article, we talk about the challenges women face in corporate America: the specific challenges women face in the workplace, the pros & cons of female leadership, moving beyond the feminine or masculine expression of leadership for greater leadership competency, and how to get more women past the structural barriers that male colleagues do not face in regards to the leadership role.
While women make up 53% of entry-level employees, there’s a serious lack of women leaders and women in positions of power.
Women continue to join the workforce in larger numbers but fail to reach senior management roles or other leadership roles at the same level as their male counterparts.
According to a 2015 analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, women in leadership account for just 24% of senior vice presidents, and 19% of C-suite executives.
Both men and women agree that gender bias has a lot to do with why are there so few women in leadership positions and senior management roles.
In a 2015 Pew Research study, 40% 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% of women and 33% of men agree that the double standard exists.
Gender bias and gender stereotypes regarding female leaders and lack of gender equality are a major reason holding women back from the top leadership positions they deserve.
In order to ensure gender equality and gender diversity, and end gender discrimination in corporate America, decision-makers and other employees must admit there is a problem.
Employers, employees, men, and women all know there’s a problem.
We know there’s a lack of women leaders and that having more female leaders is a good thing. We know that gender bias is part of the problem. So if we know there are these problems in the workplace status quo, why can’t we get past them?
The answer to that question and the issues themselves are complicated.
Getting past the fact that women remain underrepresented in top leadership positions, requires changing the conversation and moving beyond gender, and exploring what truly effective leadership behaviors are. This also requires shining a light on the misperceived disadvantages of female leadership.
The Benefits of Female Leadership in the Workplace
The lack of women in leadership may have begun with the perception that they are ineffective leaders, but that’s not the case today. Women in leadership positions have proven the misperceptions of the disadvantages of female leadership. Although men were once thought to possess the qualities of great leaders, businesses now recognize the valuable traits women bring to leadership positions and the benefits of female leadership.
Why Women are Effective Leaders?
Some of the advantages of women in leadership according to studies are:
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 leaders outscored males in 11 of 12 engagement categories, including being supportive in areas like employee progress and development.
Trust & HOnesty
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% higher return on equity."
Recognizing the valuable traits of women leaders as more females ascended the ranks, employers trained male colleagues in leadership to adopt these qualities.
Communication & Caring
They pushed men to be more communicative and caring leaders.
Collaboration & Positive Reinforcement
They emphasized the importance of collaboration and positive reinforcement.
Obstacles to Female Leadership
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
The Challenges Female Leaders Face
While the training programs mentioned above helped male colleagues develop into better leaders, they 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. like-ability problem.
The Effectiveness vs. Like-ability Problem
Women can be either effective or well-liked leaders, but society generally won’t let them be both. This is the effectiveness vs. likeability problem.
Most women in leadership roles who adopt the same behaviors as men to drive success are typically seen as less likable.
As a result, some women in leadership roles believe they have to choose between being disliked and effective or well-liked and ineffective.
But even when more 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 in leadership roles expressed masculine behavior in 57% of the 28 leadership competencies studied.
In comparison, their male counterparts' performance was perceived as significantly poorer when utilizing the feminine approach in just 39% of competencies.
What’s more, peers of women in leadership roles may be the most critical of women in leadership roles who adopt masculine traits.
For 43% of the competencies where women in leadership roles expressed the masculine version of the trait, only women rated women as less effective.
This type of gender bias is what's keeping women at bay due to structural barriers in the workplace according to studies by employee resource groups.
"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.
Stereotype #1: The “bossy” female leader
We’ve seen the gender bias played out in TV and movies a thousand times: the bossy female leader. But does the stereotype hold up in real life?
Our research suggests that many employees really do view assertive women in leadership as bossy. In fact, women are seen as less effective when they act like men for 57% of the leadership competencies studied.
What’s more, women tend to promote this stereotype more than men - for 43% of the competencies where women express the masculine version of the trait, only women rated women as less effective.
In fact, the more directive and structured female leaders are, the more negatively they are viewed by other women.
In particular, when women in leadership adopt seven masculine behaviors, employees see them as bossy. These traits are:
When women command respect from their employees, it’s a big turnoff. Instead, employees are more receptive to women in leadership who present themselves with poise and authenticity.
Women who show their confidence by talking about their accomplishments are seen as bossy braggarts. However, women who show their confidence through their actions, not words, are seen as effective leaders.
When women hold in all their emotions at the office, they’re viewed as stoic and cold. Employees expect women to express a certain level of emotion and to acknowledge the feelings of the team.
Men in leadership tend to take big risks to reach a big reward. But women are seen as more effective when they plan out different scenarios and choose a less risky option that can lead to success in multiple ways.
Coaching and Mentoring
When women create specific development plans, employees think they’re bossy. They prefer when women leaders involve them in the planning process and approach development through exploration and challenging assumptions.
Dashboards may be a great tool to monitor performance on a regular basis, but women who check detailed progress every day are seen as micromanaging and bossy. But when women use regular check-ins to look at larger goals and overall performance, versus the nitty gritty details, they’re seen as effective.
Planning and organizing
Men tend to take an analytic approach, making many small decisions to yield a larger plan, but when women use the same strategy, they’re seen as bossy. Instead, employees think effective female leaders are those who are flexible in planning, involve others, consider new ideas, and are open to changing plans in the light of new information and feedback.
While men are encouraged to blend masculine and feminine traits, women in leadership roles are caught between 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.
Many women in leadership roles are expected to master a balancing act between gendered behaviors, without being given the tools and development to do so.
Stereotype #2: The “Stoic” Male Leader
While employees expect their female leaders to be more inclusive and feel, they expect the opposite from their male leaders.
There’s a longstanding stereotype for men in leadership to be stoic and hold in their emotions - because that’s what we typically expect from the gender. After all, men who do express their emotions are said to be “in touch with their feminine side.”
But while the stereotype of the stoic male leader is still easily recognized in pop culture, the tides are changing, and employees want leaders who are more in touch with their emotions.
Our research shows that both men and women agree that the feminine expression of emotional control - acknowledging emotions and appropriately expressing them - is more effective for both men and women leaders than the masculine version - ignoring emotions and holding them in.
And when men take this approach to emotional control, they are viewed as more effective than stoic men.
Yet, men are rated as less effective than women when they do express their emotions in this way.
Whether this stereotype influenced employees’ expectations, or it was born out of their wants, employees want male leaders to express their emotions, just not as much as women. They expect them to be more masculine, and that means showing some emotions - just not too much.
So while acknowledging emotions is an effective approach, men may be more likely to hold their feelings in for fear of being seen as too weak or feminine.
In real life: George Washington may have been the first president of our country, but he isn’t remembered for his people skills - he was a tactical military leader. Throughout his presidency, he relied on his military experience, using an analytic rather than a charismatic approach. As the first leader of the country, he set the tone for the stoic leadership style we still expect from men today.
Stereotype #3: The “soft” or Pushover Female Leader
Seeing that employees react negatively to strong women in leadership, women adopt a softer leadership style. But in trying to avoid the bossy stereotype, some women are labeled as too soft and end up falling under the other stereotype. (3) http://www.businessinsider.com/the-truth-about-marissa-mayer-she-has-two-contrasting-reputations-2012-7
The “pushover” female leader focuses more on making employees “feel good,” rather than driving results. But employees write these leaders off and don’t take them seriously. And that’s because to be seen as effective, women must balance both including employees and driving the business forward.
But women are caught in a difficult position -- employees want women in senior leadership roles who are inclusive, promote teamwork, and encourage openness and new ideas.
For example, the feminine approach to conflict resolution and creativity and innovation are seen as more effective overall. For conflict resolution, that means talking it out to find a solution, while for creativity and innovation, it means leveraging the wisdom of the group to come up with new ideas.
These opinions combined with the bossy woman stereotype may lead many women in leadership to believe they’ll be more effective if they’re completely unassertive. And that’s where the pushover stereotype comes into play.
While it seems impossible, effective senior leaders balance these expectations and stereotypes.
In real life: Mary Kay Ash founded Mary Kay Cosmetics after the death of her husband in 1963. Aside from running a highly successful business, she was known and respected for creating a workplace culture that resonated with women. She considered the Golden Rule the founding principle of the company, and the marketing plan was designed to allow women to advance by helping others to succeed. When we think about female leaders, Ash was the embodiment of the inclusive feminine approach women still expect from women today.
Stereotype #4: The “Competitive” Male Leader
When we think of great male leaders, we think of figures who are strong, assertive, and competitive.
They want to compete with others in not only the marketplace but also the office. They keep track of numbers, use leaderboards, and continually encourage individuals to compete with their teammates.
While the ultra-competitive leader seems like a stereotype out of a Wall Street movie, there is some truth in the idea. Although employees want female leaders who are inclusive and communicative, they want male leaders who are more directive. Employees do want male leaders to be more inclusive, but only to a certain extent.
In fact, our research found that men and women rated the feminine expressions of three competencies as more effective than those typically associated with men.
When men adopt these traits and take on a more inclusive leadership style, employees rate them as more effective than other male leaders, but less effective than women who adopt the same traits. These traits are:
Creativity and Innovation
Employees want leaders who include the group and ask the team for new ideas. While they see this trait as effective in men, they think women who take this approach are even more impressive.
While men in leadership may think they need to command respect from their team, employees actually prefer both male and female leaders who act with poise and authenticity.
Employees don’t like the masculine approach to conflict resolution in which leaders find a solution through debate. Instead, they see compromise as the most effective approach to conflict resolution.
In real life: While Jordan Belfort has been made notorious by Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of the entrepreneur in The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort was a very real stockbroker with a competitive leadership style. He was known for running a boiler room in which he pressured his sales teams to close deals with unconventional tactics. However, his competitive nature eventually got the best of him, and he spent 22 months in prison after admitting to fraud in his penny-stock scheme
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 many women in leadership roles have to do and overcome more to even get into top leadership positions.
Women in top leadership positions are expected to master a balancing act between gendered behaviors, without often being given the tools and development to do so.
These issues are well recognized. But the conversation about gender diversity in leadership never moves to the next step and asks what can be done to make the path easier. The current conversation on gender diversity is centered on unfair gender 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 women's leadership conversations can’t go anywhere. The system can’t change overnight, and trying to change the minds of others is futile. Often 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 men and women 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
Masculine vs Feminine Leadership
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 expressions. 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% 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.
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 like-ability or effectiveness will suffer. The fact is women can balance work better in top positions as senior leaders and support employees.
How do leaders know when feminine or masculine expressions of leadership competency will be more effective?
In general, women in senior leadership positions 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 a 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% more effective than the masculine version—ignoring emotions and holding them in.
That means women hold 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 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. Furthermore, 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 men and women leaders adapt their behavior to meet the needs of their audience, they will be more balanced and effective.
How to Promote Female Leadership
Adopting Balanced Development & Gender Equality in the Workplace
Leaders won’t magically become more balanced because we tell them they need to be. They need the right leadership 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 and take women's experiences in regard to gender diversity in leadership into account.
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 reward- ing 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 into your leadership development curriculum?
The Importance of Women in Leadership Positions
The importance of female leadership in the business world cannot be overstated.
Women in leadership positions are important because they can bring a unique perspective to the table. Often, women are more likely to take into account the feelings of others and to be more cooperative, which can be beneficial in a leadership position. Additionally, women can be effective leaders in times of crisis, as they may be better able to show compassion and understanding.
Finally, it is important to have women in leadership positions in order to promote gender equality in the workplace and fight gender discrimination in the workplace and achieve gender parity, for a higher-performing organization, and overcome gender biases and gender stereotypes to break the barriers to female leadership.
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 women leaders become more balanced.
The conversation about gender diversity in leadership is complex. It goes beyond the inequalities and biases we know exist. To impact real change in the workplace, get more women in leadership, and develop more effective leaders overall that can support employees better, we need to focus the conversation and actions 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 become the best leaders and professionals we can possibly be.
It’s time to move the conversation and take action. Less than half of women have been supported. 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 for 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 Contextual 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.