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Why Women Are Better Leaders Yet Can't Break Glass Ceiling

More research supports women make great leaders, but glass ceiling persists

Recently, we have witnessed a male backlash against women who have established themselves as credible leaders, despite increasing evidence that women may in fact be better suited for leadership.

 For example, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has chaired the Senate’s Intelligence Committee for five years. So when she suggested last month that investigators should make public a report on the U.S.’s interrogation techniques because it would “ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted,” one might have seen it as the strong words and fair assessment of a person who has deep experience on the issue. But on Fox News, Bush-era National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden suggested that Feinstein actually encouraged the public release of the interrogation techniques report because of her emotions, implying that because Feinstein was a woman she was too emotional to make rational statements.

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Feinstein is not the first female political or business leader to be attacked because of her gender, and it primarily comes from conservative politicians and media. It reflects a reluctance of male dominated leaders to accept women as equals. In fact, research points to women being strong leaders, arguably better than men in current times.

In my previous article in Psychology Today, I cite numerous studies that support the proposition that women make outstanding leaders, despite slow progress in the highest leadership positions and boardrooms. 

Professors Øyvind L. Martinsen and Lars Glasø at the BI Norwegian Business School have analyzed data from an extensive leader survey that was mostly carried out in 2011 by the Administrative Research Institute (AFF) at the Norwegian School of Economics. The survey measured personality traits in Norwegian managers, work motivation and organizational commitment. More than 2900 leaders provided complete responses to the personality measurements. Of these, more than 900 were women, more than 900 were senior management and nearly 900 came from the public sector. The survey is based on the recognized theory of human personality, which describes personality as stable response patterns in thinking, emotion and behavior.

"For leaders, personality plays an even bigger role than for many other professions," according to professors Øyvind L. Martinsen and Lars Glasø at the BI Norwegian Business School.

Research has identified five key traits that, overall, provide a good picture of our personality. This is called the five factor model.

The five traits in the five factor model are: emotional stability, extraversion (outgoing), openness to new experiences, agreeableness and conscientiousness. The personality traits are measured in degrees, from high to low.

"International research studies show that the most skilled leaders achieve high scores for all five traits," according to Martinsen and Glasø.

High scores in the five personality traits give us the following five characteristics of very effective leaders:

  1. Ability to withstand job-related pressure and stress (leaders have a high degree of emotional stability).
  2. Ability to take initiative; be clear and communicative (leaders are outgoing, with a high degree of extraversion).
  3. Ability to innovate, be curious and have an ambitious vision (effective leaders have a high degree of openness to new experiences).
  4. Ability to support, accommodate and include employees (effective leaders display a high degree of sociability).
  5. Ability to set goals, be thorough and follow up (effective leaders are generally very methodical).

The results of their study? Female leaders score higher than men in four of the five personality traits measured.

“The results indicate that, as regards personality, women are better suited for leadership than their male colleagues when it comes to clarity, innovation, support and targeted meticulousness,” according to the BI researchers.

In their analyses, Martinsen and Glasø compared the personality traits of leaders in the private sector with leaders in the public sector. The results surprised the researchers, and might challenge our perceptions and stereotypes regarding leaders in the public sector.

Leaders in the public sector score higher in innovation, support and targeted meticulousness than their colleagues in the private sector. “Can the best leaders really be found in the public sector?” the researchers wonder.

The analyses also show that senior management has greater potential for innovation and systematic and targeted behavior in the leadership role than leaders at lower levels in the organization.

Martinsen and Glasø also investigated whether there were any correlations between leaders’ personality and whether they have an internal or external motivation for the job.

Internal motivation is an expression of a genuine interest in the work, perceived opinion about the work and perception of independence.

External motivation is a form of motivation where we, for example, perceive that the work is governed by external rewards (e.g. bonus). Research has consistently found that such forms of motivation, in the best case, have an impact on simpler routine tasks.

The results show that high numbers in the five traits in the five factor model are associated with internal motivation. This means that those with a basic personal expertise for the leader role, are also those with a favorable internal motivation for doing the job.

The researchers find that external motivation is correlated with low emotional stability, low sociability and low regularity.

“Leaders with difficulties handling pressure, that have a lower tendency to support and that are less thorough and targeted, state that they have higher levels of external motivation in their job,” according to the researchers.

Martinsen’s and Glasø’s research is supported by previous research studies.

A Pew Center Global Attitudes Project found that 75% of respondents in the U.S. and 80% in Canada believe that women make equally good political leaders, and the numbers were much higher in Europe, Asia and parts of South America. Another Pew Center study, Social and Demographic Survey found women leaders possessed more leadership traits of honesty, intelligence, compassion and creativity than men, whereas men scored higher only in decisiveness.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, authors of The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Activate, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, argue that in today’s complex demanding world of organizations, women may possess superior leadership capabilities compared to men.

Zenger and Folkman make that contention based on 30 years of research on what constitutes overall leadership effectiveness that comes from 360 evaluations of a leader’s peers, bosses and direct reports and a 2011 survey of over 7,000 leaders from some of the most successful and progressive organizations. They concluded “at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts—and the higher the level, the wider the gap grows.” Specifically, the authors note, “at all levels, women were rated higher in fully 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree—taking initiative and driving for results—have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.”  Men outscored women significantly on only one management competency—the ability to develop a strategic perspective.

Despite this compelling research, women still struggle to gain equitable treatment in a male dominated leadership world.

The World Economic Forum’s 2012 report called the Global Gender Gap Index, which has been used since 2006 as a tool to capture gender-based disparities, by measuring national gender gaps in economic, political, health and educational metrics on the best countries for women in economic equality terms, place the Scandinavian countries and New Zealand in the top 8, with Canada rated at 21st and the U.S. at 22nd. Countries such as Latvia, Cuba, South Africa and the Philippines are ranked higher.

Even as European Union considers implementing quotas to increase the number of women in senior management roles, Grant Thornton has released a report showing that the number of women in senior positions has not changed much since 2004; it still hovers around 20 percent globally. What’s interesting, is that the U.S. has one of the lowest figures in the Western developed world.

The report, which looks at both listed and privately-held businesses, shows some interesting facts about what countries are the most progressive in promoting women to leadership roles. Key findings from the survey:

  • Women hold one in five senior management roles globally, with little change since 2004;
  • Less than one in ten businesses has a female CEO, with women largely employed in finance and human resources;
  • Many economies, especially in Europe, are choosing to implement quotas on the number of women on boards;
  • There is no clear correlation between either flexible working practices or female economic activity and the proportion of women in senior management;
  • Here are comparative figures for women in leadership positions by country/region: Canada(25%); U.S.(17%); Latin America (22%); Russia (46%); Europe (24%); New Zealand (28%); ASEAN countries (32%); China (25%).

In the U.S., the recent divisive and acrimonious political campaigns have unearthed attempts to actually move women’s rights and diversity backwards. A record number of state legislative attempts and several in Congress to roll back women’s reproductive rights have been evident. So too, was the proposed pay equity legislation held up in Congress.   Yet pay equity would produce a significant stimulus to the consumer-based economy, according to Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, who estimates that pay equity would grow the U.S. economy 3-4%, compared to the 1.5% produced by the $800 billion stimulus legislation.

And ABC News/Washington Post reported that one in four American women have been sexually harassed on the job, yet only 64% of Americans see harassment as a serious workplace problem, down from 88% in 1992.

Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee,  of McKinsey & Company, and authors of a special report for The Wall Street Journal Executive Task Force for Women in the Economy, argue “As the U.S. struggles to sustain historic GDP growth rates, it is critically important to bring more women into the workforce and fully deploy high-skill women to drive productivity improvement.” The authors reviewed over 100 existing research papers, surveyed 2,500 men and women and interviewed 30 chief diversity officers and experts to determine why there were such low numbers of women leaders in organizations, particularly at the upper levels. Of all the factors that were examined, the authors identified entrenched beliefs as one of the most significant—the prevailing belief that women were not as capable as men to be leaders. Barsh and Yee of McKinsey contend “if companies could raise the number of middle management women who make it to the next level by 25%, it would significantly alter the shape of the leadership talent pipeline.”

Two things seem more certain today. First, the glass ceiling has not been broken in any substantial way at the senior executive and board level in North America, particularly the U.S. And second, research points to women possessing the necessary attributes and abilities for successful leadership in our organizations and institutions.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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