Women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies has risen from 12.5% in 2011 to almost 29% in 2019 – do these women lead differently?

Recently we heard the good news that the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies has risen from 12.5% in 2011 to almost 29% in 2019. But why is this good news, beyond the important question of gender imbalance? Do men and women lead differently?

The answer is yes – and no. Here’s why.

Male leaders often think that female leaders are better because they have certain qualities that men don’t have. They tell the truth in ways that don’t offend. They are better able to balance a whole variety of factors more quickly and more holistically, whereas men usually go for ‘the angle’. They are more adroit at looking across contexts. They are more empathetic without projecting undue feeling. They can be brutally decisive, and waste no time. Therefore the ideal leadership team will always be a balance of men and women because of the things that differentiate male and female leaders.

Take care with the following list. Not every leader would agree with it all. But, as a group, the leaders we talk to see important differences between men and women, and between male and female leaders (even when they claim they don’t):

  • Women who get to the top will have worked harder and better to get there.
  • Women experience a lot more hassle – sexism, gender-bias, juggling work and home.
  • Women are more natural empathisers.
  • Women have greater emotional intelligence.
  • Women are more inclusive.
  • Women are more intuitive.
  • Women bring different ways of thinking.
  • Women are more focused on the right things.
  • Women are more resourceful at maintaining complex networks of relationships.
  • Women are better natural communicators.
  • Women are more prepared to be humble.
  • Women spend more time bottoming issues.

The riposte to this list is the question: don’t the best men have these qualities too? Of course they do. Remember that a time-honoured leadership trait of male leaders is the land-grab. Men know an opportunity to grow their leadership capability when they see it, and having (or working extremely hard to learn) the above ‘female’ qualities is clearly one of them, be it by nature or nurture.

Many male leaders are aware that their whole leadership style would be stereotypically characterised as feminine. Most agreed that they had adopted or learned important leadership approaches that women were naturally, or more likely to be, better at.

So, whilst we can conclude that the future of leadership should belong to women and men who think more like them, the more important point is this: we are going to have to change the whole way we approach gender beyond redefining ‘male’ and ‘female’ leader-types.

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