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Tapping Into What Makes Women Leaders Great

In 2019, 29% of senior management roles worldwide were held by women. But while that’s the highest-ever percentage on record, it’s still far from half – and leadership numbers for women are much lower at the highest echelons of business. (Only 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs today are women.) 

The many problems facing women in business and the workplace – ranging from bias to wage gaps to educational and cultural barriers to entry – make such numbers unsurprising. Based on leadership skills alone, however, that shouldn’t be the case.

HBR research has found that women leaders are perceived as equally effective to men in almost every competency that differentiates excellent leaders from average or poor ones (based on peer responses in 360-degree reviews). In fact, women were rated at higher levels for the vast majority of capabilities (17 of 19) and outscored men to notable degrees (of ~5% or greater) in five of them. 

As companies today look for ways to help women move higher in their hierarchies, these capabilities are worth understanding. Tapping into the five leadership competencies where women perform greater may help companies inch closer to gender equality in their senior ranks.

Qualities crucial to company success

HBR’s analysis found women “slightly more effective than men at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area of the organization.” Women were rated notably higher at taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty.

These five qualities are crucial to organizational success, especially in today’s fast-changing business landscape. A forthcoming economic downturn – forecasted by many to arrive in 2020 – could mean layoffs are ahead for many companies.  With these layoffs will come fewer opportunities for internal mentorship, smaller budgets for employee engagement and development, and a need for more constrained use of resources across organizations. 

Employees and leaders that possess qualities like resilience, initiative and a flair for self-development are better equipped to thrive, innovate, and make meaningful contributions to the business in tighter economic times. Big-picture changes to the role of business in society are elevating the importance of integrity and honesty in leadership, too. 

As a sense of broader purpose becomes more central to companies’ organizational strategies – and to their investors’ and customers’ expectations – backing up a corporate mission or “brand promise” will require new models of leadership that align values with actions in the drive for results.

Driving, and achieving, results is central to employee satisfaction, as well. That may be one reason companies led by women have happier workers.

Modeling leadership to elevate ‘greatness’

Despite the benefits of women in leadership roles, many companies are still afflicted with what researchers call masculinity contest cultures. In these environments, “stereotypically masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness” tend to be prized as winning competencies (even though they drive turnover and undercut innovation by lessening workers’ sense of psychological safety). 

Tapping into competencies like initiative, resiliency, self-development, and integrity in their hiring, development, and management processes can help organizations lessen the influence of those long-ingrained ideas. 

In all areas of HR and engagement, companies should inspect the questions they ask employees and recruits (and think hard about what kind of responses they want). Asking people how they’ve responded to past failures, for example, can elicit responses around their strength in the face of adversity – a more stereotypically masculine quality – or around taking the initiative to understand and respond to the problems that led to the failure.

Making self-development a measured part of the management track can also help companies rethink what leadership looks like. Encouraging cross-functional learning over subject-matter mastery, for example, can lessen competitiveness. It can also lead to more well-rounded employees with the resiliency to handle problems outside their expertise.

Putting integrity at the center of culture and strategy is essential, as well. So-called “masculinity contest cultures” often thrive because people are afraid to speak up about negative experiences in environments where toughness is prioritized. Encouraging honesty over complicity – especially about business practices and interpersonal issues – can help companies drive new models of leadership forward. 

Changing for a better future

Ultimately, if a company is lacking in integrity, women (as well as men) won’t want to advance there. 80% of millennials say they want to work for ‘engaged companies,’ and meeting their expectations will require honest results that deliver on both purpose and profit.

Elevating women should be one such purpose at every organization. 

Reducing gender-based wage gaps, workforce disparities, and inequality around the world is an immense global challenge. Bringing more women into the workforce, and ensuring they have the support and opportunities to rise into senior roles, is every business’ responsibility. 

No company alone can conquer the problems and barriers to entry women face at work, but rethinking the qualities that are prized in management is an important place to start (and will ultimately help build a pipeline of women ready for senior leadership at the highest levels of industry). To pursue careers in business, young women and girls need to not only see company leaders they can look up to as examples but also know that their unique competencies are valued by organizations that will employ them.