Why women make better leaders

Filed under: Global Issues |

OpinionNigeria-NgoziOkonjoIweala

When you type “Why are women __” into Google search, the first term that pops up is “crazy.” The second is “so shallow,” the third “so emotional.” The last one I saw before writing my own search was “so mean.” I guess some googlers have issues.

But what interested me is how these terms echo other misperceptions about women floating around the public sphere. In fact they tally with a great piece that Jenna Goudreau wrote last month on the worst stereotypesabout female bosses. Powerful women are perceived as being icy, tough, weak, emotional, single and lonely, and having a whole lot of other toxic conflicting attributes. Maybe they represent conventional anxieties about women on a broad scale.

Yet for many of the women who reach the top, the reality is far different. An obvious example is the German chancellor Angela Merkel (married, incidentally) who came fourth in Forbes’ list of most powerful people, nine spots ahead of her European colleague Nicolas Sarkozy. Perhaps it is her studied demeanor or the fact that her personal life isn’t on public display but there is something about Merkel that makes her more likeable than the flamboyant French premier.

And it’s not just me. The German newspaper Der Spiegel has reported that the French have more confidence in Merkel than they have in Sarkozy, according to a survey conducted by Le Parisien. Plenty of other women fare well in the public eye. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll showed that Hillary Clinton‘s approval ratings are higher than ever at 66%. Of course this may be because, as Gallup says, the secretary of state position that she occupies “is somewhat above the fray of partisan politics.” But the fact remains: she’s doing a great job.

Both of these leaders are in politics, not business, and as Moira Forbes pointed out lately, business remains the realm where the glass ceilings are most intact. This is a pity since research shows that “strong market growth among European companies is most likely to occur where there is a higher proportion of women in senior management teams.” Firms with more women on their boards “outperform their rivals with a 42% higher return on sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.” Other research has found that teams which involve women are more intelligent than teams made up of men alone. So what qualities might make women suited to be good leaders?

  1.  Communication is key to effective leadership, according to Harvard Business School professor Nitin Nohria, who writes that great leaders “spend the bulk of their time communicating.” Traditionally women are thought to be better than men when it comes to verbalizing what they think.
  2. Empathy positively relates to job performance amongst employees. The ability to understand what others are feeling — to detect if they are overworked or struggling — is a skill that “clearly contributes to effective leadership,” says a white paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership.
  3. Leaders must have a vision (which they communicate to their team). Think of Merkel on Europe: “The world is watching Germany and Europe. They are looking to see if we are ready and able to assume our responsibilities during Europe’s worst crisis since the end of World War II.”
  4. Perspective: Women look at problems differently. They make up half the population and reflect the consumer interests, dreams and desires of that population. “The best teams are made up of a different mixture of skills and backgrounds which bring spark and innovation to organizations,” writes Sylvian Perrins in the Financial Times.
  5. Maturity: Right after the financial crisis this value sprang up from nowhere. All of a sudden, risk awareness and caution became treasured characteristics. When Iceland went broke and got rid of its male leader, the new female premier was seen as cleaning up the men’s mess. The ability to think long-term came to be seen as a specifically feminine trait.

It’s not entirely fair to identify all of these qualities as uniquely female. Sure, there are bad women bosses and women who are ruthless and destructive, while plenty of men are compassionate and inspiring. In general I am against gender stereotyping. But I also believe that if we had more female leaders the world would be a better place, and the Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker agrees with me, arguing that life would be more peaceful if women were in charge.

Have your female bosses been compassionate and nice, or are they as likely as men to be either good or bad? Have your say!

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