Christine M. Nowik is pursuing a Ph.D. in Leadership and Administration at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She serves as the department chair of English at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College.
Tina Brown, founder of the Women in the World summit, recently shared her perspectives on leadership in “What Happens when Women Stop Leading like Men.” She argues that the world needs the type of leadership Jacinda Ardern and Stacy Abrams offer, arguing that “women have accumulated rich ways of knowing that until recently were dismissed in male circles of power.”
Ms. Brown is right. The science of leadership supports her assertions.
Transformational leadership is one of the most effective leadership frameworks, empirically speaking, and includes four primary pillars: Individualized consideration (how the leader attends to follower needs), intellectual stimulation (how the leader challenges the status quo and encourages risk), inspirational motivation (how the leader inspires with a vision), and idealized influence (how the leader inspires others and establishes trust through high ethical behavior).
Notably, each of the four pillars focuses not on the leader herself but on those led, and arguably, women develop transformational leadership skills because their social position requires it. Women are lower than men on the social hierarchy in Western culture, rendering them with less access to power and resources. Lower social status has been shown to correlate to higher levels of cooperation, communality, and egalitarianism; higher social status correlates to less cooperation, communality, and egalitarianism
Women demonstrate higher levels of transformational leadership across settings and are more democratic, more participative, more communicative, and more creative in their problem solving than male leaders.
While science supports the notion that women are stronger leaders, it also supports the idea that women are systemically disadvantaged in leadership by stereotypes. Women are judged more harshly than men, even when they do the same things as men, and especially when evaluated by men. They are judged more harshly when leading areas that are not congruent with “womanly” work. And they are judged more harshly for mistakes.
This picture is complicated even further at the intersection gender and other factors such as race, class, sexual orientation, and ableness. Anyone who does not fit the Western stereotype of the vision of a leader can be disadvantaged in the leadership arena.
These findings have implications for every organization. Leaders must understand their own biases in judging women’s performance, acknowledging that – if they have lived their lives in the United States — they were raised in a culture that places women in opposition to the default image of “leader.” Organizations should actively work against such biases by evaluating hiring, promotion, and pay practices to ensure that implicit biases do not keep women out of the ranks of leadership.
This is not to say that all women are good leaders; as Ms. Brown points out, women are not “naturally and invariably better” at leading than men, and we have ample evidence of failed leadership across all demographics. At the same time, women exhibit more of the type of leadership that results in sustained change, better outcomes, higher profits, and far more egalitarian processes, arguably as a result of their social position in Western society.
Smart organizations will pay attention to the research and recognize that women’s leadership presents an opportunity to find the missing X-factor in organizational effectiveness. Women in leadership is a strategic advantage.