A dozen women are lined up in an office, smiling

Why Women’s Leadership is a Business Asset

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Social science studies find that male bosses are more likely to judge the competence of women managers using a skewed view on gender. In practice, this means organisations are missing out on a proactive approach to leadership.

This post provides an overview of research about gender bias about women’s capacity in leadership. I look at how gender stereotypes are stopping businesses from capitalising on women’s management strengths and innovation. I also give a list of proactive steps that managers and Executives can use in order to improve their organisation’s management structure so it is more inclusive of women and more supportive of all genders.

Gender Bias in Entrepreneurship

A recent study found that people overwhelmingly favour business pitches by men over women’s pitches – even when they contain the exact same information and when the speakers have the same level of experience. Social myth claims that women have to be attractive to get ahead (I’ve argued elsewhere this is not true). This new study published by the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds that it is actually “attractive” men who have an advantage in business, while looks had no advantage for women. The study included investors as well as members of the public in three experiments carried out over three years. People reported that men were “more persuasive, logical, and fact-based than were the same pitches narrated by a female voice.” This is in spite of the fact, as noted, that the information was delivered in exactly the same way and with identical scripts by both men and women.

The study shows that only 11% of successful American businesses funded by venture capital have been led by women and only 7% of venture capital funds have been awarded to women overall. Given that this study controls for all other variables, including the content and delivery of ideas, these findings suggest that gender biases about business leadership are at play. This suggests that even amongst cutting edge fields, such as entrepreneurship, gender bias is a hindrance to innovation.

Gender Bias in Corporate Leadership

Sociologist Deborah Tannen finds that women manage in ways that attempt to be supportive and team-orientated, but their male bosses often perceive women’s management style as weak or indecisive. For a example, women managers are more likely to seek opinions from team members to help them feel appreciated. Male managers see this as indecision, perceiving women to be less assertive than men who encourage less collaboration. Women managers are more careful about their employees’ feelings, and so they put them at ease by asking them to talk about their technical competencies. Male managers interpret this as incompetence or deferring to subordinates.

Women managers also tend to use the pronoun “we” when talking about company achievements, even when they are the sole person to carry out a project or task. Male managers are more likely to use “I” to describe company achievements, even when there was a team involved in carrying out a project.

Rather than seeing women’s different leadership style as a deficiency or as a problem, or encouraging them to adopt more masculine styles of leadership, CEOs and upper management should see this style of leadership as an asset. It is about being inclusive of team members, reading the nuances of personalities, and celebrating the work of the team.

A white woman stands listening to

Jean Oelwang, CEO of Virgin Unity (Virgin’s philanthropy organisation) calls this “Gaia values,” women-led principles in business, which she summarises as:

People matter: capitalism started out with this premise, freeing people to make a living and pursue their dreams, but as greed fogged people’s views on what really matters, the increasing lack of equity has led to unacceptable human suffering. Fortunately, our newly connected world has now put the power back into people’s hands. Leaders who put people and equity first will break through the glass ceiling hand in hand with the people they are leading. Openness is the best policy: as the world becomes more interconnected, this value will become more important. Honest dialogue will become the new power, the new success, the new sexy. Collaboration is queen: the fight for the top rung of the ladder is becoming irrelevant in the face of the issues and opportunities we face as a global community.

No need to “sex” up values of transparency – women’s business leadership doesn’t need to appeal to sexuality. Instead, women’s leadership is vital to businesses who are committed to social good and corporate responsibility.

Yet all too often businesses and organisations that are committed to social good do not adequately reward women’s leadership. What can your organisation do to eradicate gender bias and maximise women’s leadership?

A white woman's eye. Text: omen leaders: Are more inclusive of team members; work to strengthen different personalities; foster innovation through collaboration.

Protecting Your Business Against Gender Bias

Introduce mandatory equity and diversity training

Routine (at least annual) workshops on gender and diversity issues should be embedded into your organisational culture. It should be a mandatory condition of employment to attend for all levels, from junior to Executive. It’s not enough to say you believe in equality; you need to provide awareness about subtle and overt gender biases. Your employees require in-depth case studies of how gender dynamics impact on collaboration within the team as well as in leadership. They should be provided practical steps for communicating and addressing gender biases.

Regularly evaluate your workplace policies and procedures for promotion

Without expert analysis, it’s easy for employers to overlook how gender relations may be impeding progress. Perhaps you have equal opportunity hiring ideals in place. “We are an equal opportunity employer” is a standard line in job advertisements. But have you analysed whether these policies are working? What’s an acceptable level of diversity? Is this even the right question – what else should you be thinking about with respect to gender and diversity policies? Are women being promoted upwards or are they stuck in lower positions? Perhaps you’ve hired a few women and you think you’ve got the very best people you possibly get. But are there equal numbers of men and women on your management team and on your Executive Board? If not, maybe you think this is based on merit – that the best of your people are in leadership roles, regardless of their gender. Think again. Social science research shows that implicit gender biases are at play. Without impartial and professional guidance, it’s hard for any employer to address diversity in a way that leads to strong results.

Provide expert coaching and consultation

Maybe you have some women on your team – but are you maximising their potential, or are you merely assuming your workplace is already as optimal as it can be? As I’ve previously shown, research provides ample evidence that women feel under utilised in their jobs. They feel that they are not heard during meetings, as if their ideas are under valued and that they don’t get the same opportunities as men. Bring in an expert to improve your management style and to increase awareness about gender relations in leadership. With the help of a consultant, introduce mentorship programs that will get results – this can only work if your policies and practices are aligned to support equal opportunities for everyone.

Use social science research to inform your occupational practices

Most people are reasonable and interested in promoting good in the world. Businesses are increasingly aware of corporate social responsibility. Entrepreneurs and startups know better than most that business can’t always be about profit. As a manager, you want to do the best by your people and your company. But doing the right thing can’t be left up to individuals to sort out for themselves. Social science research provides concrete evidence for issues that are usually hidden to most people, such as unconscious biases. Social scientists are also trained to address professional issues using established methods that have been shown to improve business processes. Equality doesn’t just happen – it needs work, evaluation and targeted practices.

Does your business back up its ideals of progressive leadership by putting women in top Executive positions? Are there enough women in your upper management team? How can you know whether your workplace misreads, disregards or under-values the management style of  women? 

You can read my previous article on how to improve gender equality in your workplace, or leave comments and questions below if you’re wondering how gender diversity in your leadership team can improve your organisation.

Text only: Protecting your business against gender bias: Provide equity & diversity training. Regularly evaluate workplace policies. Ensure procedures for promotion are equal. Make available expert coaching & consultation. Apply social science to occupational practice

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