From heads of state to CEOs of major corporations, women are starting to take up more and more leadership positions in our world.
And while they’re still underrepresented in leadership, women are closing the gap more and more with each passing year—and even making inroads into traditionally male-dominated spaces like tech and military leadership.
But is there actually a difference between male and female leaders, or is a good leader simply a good leader, regardless of gender?
It’s a tough question to answer, and any answer is going to involve generalizations that don’t fit every case. But it does seem that there are some differences between male and female leadership styles. And understanding these differences can help companies build stronger, more balanced, more capable leadership teams.
It’s a common trope in romantic comedies for men to become exasperated at the indirectness of women: “Why doesn’t she just say what she means!”. And while this is obviously an exaggeration for comedic effect, most people would probably admit that women are, generally, quite skilled at more subtle modes of communication.
While successful female leaders will have mastered clear and concise communication, they may also have this ability to shift modes between direct and indirect speech.
Why is that important? Because in today’s global business culture, leadership teams need people who are experts in both “low-context” communication, where things are stated directly and openly, as well as “high-context” communication, a more indirect and implicit communication style typical of China, Japan, and ASEAN countries.
Female leaders from low-context countries may be better able to adapt their communication style to the expectations of business partners from high-context cultures—which means fewer misunderstandings and greater synergy.
It’s an oversimplification to say that women are better listeners than men. But research at Indiana University in the USA suggests that women’s brains actually do process language differently than men’s—and that they use proportionally more of the brain to do it.
This provides some hard physical evidence for what researchers have observed elsewhere: that women seem more able than men to listen effectively, for longer stretches, and to more people simultaneously.
In terms of leadership, this means that female leaders may have an edge when it comes to sounding out their team, getting the most out of brainstorming meetings, and really grasping a client’s needs.
A study at USC recently confirmed what psychologists have said for years: men are bigger risk takers than women. But interestingly, the scientists also found that women tend to take even fewer risks during periods of stress, while men “double down” and increase their risk taking behavior.
Female leaders, then, may bring a more cautious, deliberate style of management to the company. And during troubled times, they may be the lone voice of reason keeping the rest of the team from taking rash action.
Because women are less prone to take risks than men, female leaders may also seek more input from their teams in order to make carefully considered choices—which may result in a more collaborative leadership and decision-making style.
Female leaders who have families and children will undoubtedly be aware of the “second shift” phenomenon: working women often tackle a disproportionate burden of the household tasks, even when they are at the office as much as their partners (one UK study suggests that women may do as much as 60% more domestic work!).
Although things are slowly changing, this is still the experience of many women in the workforce. But it also means that women leaders may be much more acutely aware—from personal experience—of the need for flexible working hours and arrangements.
The benefit is clear. Having women on a company’s leadership team provides a valuable perspective that can be enormously useful in creating realistic leave and remote work policies—policies which translate into higher employee satisfaction and retention.
Mentoring vs training
Much has been written about the difference between transformational and transactional leadership styles. Transactional leaders offer clearly defined tasks with clear rewards and punishments based on performance. In other words, work is a transaction: You do this, you get that.
Transformational leaders, on the other hand, attempt to reshape organizations through motivation, teamwork, and shared vision. And while both men and women can be transformational leaders, there’s some evidence that women may do transformational leadership differently than men.
In particular, one study demonstrated that female leaders tend to spend more time focused on their team members’ individual development and needs. Male leaders were more prone to point out mistakes and correct errors (and generally not pay as much attention to coaching unless there was a serious problem). Female leaders, then, may be more likely to take on the role of coach or mentor, and offer ongoing, personalized development for their team.
Female leaders often have a more “participatory” style of leadership (sometimes described as “democratic” decision-making). And what this means is that female leaders are more likely to solicit ideas from their teams—and be open to new ones.
For team members, this can mean working in an environment where their voices are heard and their great ideas are valued, which is always a plus. And for an organization, having leaders on board who are willing to keep an open mind and always be on the lookout for great new ideas is a definite advantage, because such a climate fosters innovation and invention.
Another well-recognized trait of female leaders is that they tend to have a more collaborative style than male leaders, meaning that their focus will be on teamwork, consensus-building, and group dynamics.
This can be especially important when managing a diverse team, where there will necessarily be a multitude of perspectives and the real possibility of miscommunication. Leaders with a collaborative style may be better able to navigate the challenges of a diverse team.
In fact, one study of political and ethnic diversity at a political level seems to support this idea, showing that countries with high levels of ethnic diversity tended to do better economically with a female leader at the helm.
Battle of the sexes?
After reading this article, you may find yourself asking: Do women make better leaders than men?
And of course the answer is: It’s not that simple.
First of all, these 7 differences are not absolute, and obviously don’t account for individual differences between people: some men are masters of indirect communication; some women are incredibly bold risk takers.
Secondly, the qualities and differences listed above are only some of the factors that make for a good leader. It’s probably safe to say that great male and female leaders have many more similarities than differences.
But it’s also true that women leaders, on average, do seem to have different styles, strengths, and emphases than their male counterparts—and that these differences can be enormously beneficial for teams and companies.
So what’s the answer?
If you want the best possible leadership team, you’ll need great leaders who have a diverse ranges of strengths and styles, because different situations demand different things. And as we’ve written about in other articles, this kind of diversity only makes a company stronger.
The real answer is not “men vs women”, but male and female leaders working together, bringing their diverse but complimentary talents and styles together to build better teams, create innovative solutions, and forge more competitive companies.