Women most effective leaders for today’s world

Much has been written about the glass ceiling, the double standard and other barriers to women in management. A related question that has consumed both academic and popular writers is whether men and women have the same leadership abilities.

The answer suggested by a comprehensive meta-analysis published in the current Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 129, No. 3) might surprise you. On average, women in management positions are somewhat better leaders than men in equivalent positions, according to the study.

This project, “Transformational, Transactional and Laissez Faire Leadership Styles: a Meta-Analysis Comparing Women and Men,” statistically combines the results of 45 published and unpublished studies on leaders in business, academics and other areas to examine whether the typical leadership styles of men and women differ.

“The meta-analysis revealed relatively small sex differences, which is to be expected since the men and women compared are in equivalent roles with relatively similar responsibilities,” said Alice Eagly, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

“Thus, the differences in male and female managerial behavior are in the discretionary aspects of behavior, because all managers have to carry out basic tasks required by their roles,” she said. “Still, the implications of our findings are encouraging for female leadership when you consider that all aspects of leadership style on which women exceed men relate positively to effectiveness.”

In addition to Eagly, the co-investigators of the study include Northwestern’s Mary C. Johannesen-Schmidt and Marloes L. van Engen, Tilburg University, the Netherlands.

The meta-analysis showed that women are more likely than men to use leadership styles that other studies have shown produce better worker performance and effectiveness in today’s world.

Specifically, women were more likely to be transformational leaders, defined as those who serve as role models, mentor and empower workers and encourage innovation even when the organization they lead is generally successful.

Eagly’s meta-analysis grows out of a substantial body of research that attempts to identify leadership styles that are especially attuned to contemporary conditions. Gaining momentum in the 1990s, that research showed that transformational leadership strengthens organizations by inspiring followers’ commitment and creativity.

Leadership researchers found that, in contrast, “transactional” leaders appeal to subordinates’ self-interest by forming exchange relationships, based on using reward and punishment as incentives. The researchers also distinguished a laissez faire style that is marked by an overall failure to take responsibility for managing.

In Eagly’s study, women also scored higher than men on one measure of transactional leadership — rewarding employees for good performance.

“That is the only aspect of transactional leadership that is associated with positive outcomes,” Eagly noted.

Men scored higher than women on the other transactional aspects, such as using punishment, and on laissez faire leadership — behaviors that do not appear to produce more effective organizations.

“Giving women equal access to leadership roles obviously would increase the size of an organization’s pool of potential managers,” Eagly said. “What people may not realize is that adding women to that pool likely increases the proportion of candidates with superior leadership skills.”

In synthesizing the 45 leadership studies, the researchers conclude that the causes of the sex differences in leadership may lie in several factors.

A transformational leadership style may be especially congenial to women because this way of leading is relatively androgynous and has some nurturing, feminine aspects. A considerable body of research has shown that women can be disliked and distrusted in leadership roles, especially when they exert authority over men, appear to be extremely competent or use a dominant style of communication. Transformational behavior may lessen suspicion of female leaders and alleviate problems of lesser authority and legitimacy that they sometimes face.

Another reason women may favor a transformational style is that such a leader operates more like an excellent teacher than a traditional boss. Women’s past socialization may give them more ability to lead by teaching — that is, by developing and nurturing workers’ abilities and inspiring them to be outstanding contributors.

And the glass ceiling itself may produce more highly skilled female leaders. Research shows that higher standards are often imposed on women to attain leadership roles and to retain them. Because transformational leadership constitutes skillful leadership, women may be more skillful leaders than men because they have to meet a higher standard.

Media Contact

Pat Vaughan Tremmel EurekAlert!

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