Women as Leaders: What Is Different about Leading Other Women?

Guest Contribution by Anne Litwin, PhD

Two female friends talking.“I worked for a woman who was more task focused, which made it real uncomfortable for me. When a guy does that [is task focused], it doesn’t bother me as much.” (Financial Services Manager)

I heard this kind of statement often from the women in my research on women’s relationships in the workplace. This research, involving women from many professions and countries, shows that many women have different expectations of how female leaders should behave. Women also often report preferring to work for men, which could be a significant problem for our careers if almost half of the workforce does not want to be led by us.

The plethora of books about how to be an effective leader rarely acknowledge that women often need one leadership style for leading men and a different style for leading women, while men can use the same style effectively with both genders. For example, many of my female clients have complained that they have more difficulty getting things done when supervising female staff than their male colleagues do. What works for the men in motivating female staff often doesn’t work for them.

Where do these different expectations come from? My research reveals that women expect more from a relationship with female leaders; these relational expectations reflect something I call women’s friendship rules. Women’s relational expectations of female leaders include their building connection and trust through sharing and listening. Yet the masculine norms of most workplaces discourage relationship work as a “waste of time” or “coddling” and instead value task focus and autonomy. A woman engineer recently told me that she received a lower performance rating than she thought she deserved and was told that she spends too much time chatting with her staff, listening to them, and asking for their input. She was told that to prove herself ready for advancement, she has to demonstrate toughness and stop coddling her predominantly female staff. Her team’s results were terrific, but her style did not match the company norm for effective leadership. Her superiors did not understand that she was doing what she had to do to get the results she got.

It might seem that the simplest action you can take is to adopt a masculine style and stay aloof from your employees. However, scholars show the importance of relational skills for effective leadership, and staying aloof can backfire for a female leader. Not only might it set up the other women at your workplace to feel uncomfortable with you, as described in the opening statement, but it might also demotivate them and affect their productivity.

Of course, not all women report that they dislike having female bosses. Many women in my study and many female clients report feeling supported by female leaders in a way they do not experience with men. For example, these women said that their female leaders are more understanding about their struggles with deciding when to start a family or their needing time off for children’s events.

Three Tips for Leading Women
Here are some actions you can take to address your staff’s expectations:

1. Be friendly and relational with female staff members. Show an interest in the personal lives of your staff by asking about their weekends and vacations and inquiring about sick spouses or children. But be sensitive to cultural differences. In some cultures, it is not appropriate to share personal information outside of the family. The only way to be sure you are being sensitive is to ask people what is comfortable for them.

2. Share some personal information about yourself, within limits. For example, share stories about your weekends, family, and hobbies.

3. Listen to complaints and problems—but put a limit or boundary on how much time you are willing to do so. Let people know that you want to know when something is wrong in their personal or work lives and that you will help find solutions if you can. You need to know if something is distracting them from their work or they are facing other barriers to their productivity, and they need to feel that you care about them as human beings.

We can adjust our leadership styles to meet the different needs of women and men who work for us. Differences in our socialization mean that, as women, being relational at work is probably easier for us than for our male colleagues. Our challenge is to use the leadership style that works best for those we are leading.

Anne Litwin is the author of New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together and owner of Anne Litwin and Associates. For more information, visit

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