A recent Deloitte report [PDF] indicated that, “One size does not fit all” when it comes to corporate leadership. The fact that some businesses are facing an unstable and jagged economic future means they need a leader who can thrive across multiple complex environments. Requiring these top executives, both individually and collectively, to break out of a cookie cutter mold of one-dimensionality and embrace a multifaceted approach to leadership.
Qualities such as a high tolerance for risk and failure, a diverse skill set, a willingness to learn, adaptability, and a passion to engage fellow employees, are what corporations are seeking in a contemporary leader, according to the Deloitte report. But does this set of leadership qualities favor women leaders?
According to an in-house study conducted by Caliper, women leaders are, “more assertive and persuasive, have a stronger need to get things done and are more willing to take risks than male leaders.” The results of the Caliper study also emphasized that women leaders set a new standard of executive leadership by infusing qualities such as empathy, flexibility, and strong interpersonal skills. Is this blending of more traditional leadership qualities and new traits encouraging more women to seek leadership roles?
The answer would seem to be yes, according to Alice Eagly’s work at Northwestern university. She noted, “Cultural stereotypical leadership roles are changing to incorporate more culturally feminine aspects, without losing the culturally masculine aspects.” Professionally, Eagly explained, this is helpful to women, because social skills are being incorporated into the expectations of a leadership role.
“Women do well with an androgynous mix of culturally masculine and feminine behaviors,” Eagly said. “It’s often possible to do both—be assertive while maintaining consideration of others. I think that female leaders/managers often offer a mix of masculine and feminine behaviors, and can be accepted with an appropriate mix. So it’s not a matter of masculine or feminine behavior.”
However, finding the right balance between assertiveness and approachability is critical for female leaders.
Eagly continued, “At higher levels, women are in the minority as leaders everywhere, but there is gradual change overall toward more women in leader roles. We know that in more culturally feminine fields (education, social work, healthcare, community groups) women are relatively more successful and accepted as leaders. In more culturally masculine fields such as business and finance, and especially in highly male-dominated roles, women are less successful as leaders and encounter more prejudice,”
Why? It’s simple, she explained. It is because where expectations are for more masculine behavior and for the presence of men; women are distrusted more and accorded less respect and liking.
What does this mean for the future of female leaders?
Caliper’s research suggests that as the perception of effective corporate leadership evolves, women already possess the qualities required to succeed. There is no doubt we are making progress, but why aren’t we seeing this translate into a bigger increase in the number of women at the executive level?
The acceptance of female leaders rests mostly in the ability of both genders to swap stereotypical gender-specific behaviors and progress as gender-neutral leaders. Women do not necessarily need to alter their leadership style to fit the mold, but rather the system as a whole needs to be adapted to different forms and styles of leadership.
Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University’s Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, puts forward a potential approach suggesting that we supercede gender based behaviors with a more neutral humanistic approach. She said, “When CEOs of any gender show their human side, they display worthy intentions toward others, whether employees or consumers and clients. Respect depends on competence, but liking depends on warm and trustworthy intentions toward others. People will forgive a lot if the leader’s intentions are honest and good.”
Fiske explained that the idea that leadership qualities typically applied to men, are effective when demonstrated by women. Furthermore, women’s more democratic and inclusive behavior is equally effective when performed by men. This observation makes a strong case for more gender balanced leadership styles adopted by both men and women.
“If it becomes clear that gender balance is integral to the business model (e.g., because half the clients are female), then subordinates invest more seriously,” said Fiske, who has done extensive research on the subject for her soon-to-be-released book, The HUMAN Brand. She continued, “Better than education is interdependence, working together for shared goals.”
Success shared by both men and women leaders, in non-gender defining roles, will aid in combating gender dynamics and perceptions at the executive level. If this happens, ideas about women in leadership will inevitably continue to change and evolve.