Data Shows Women Make Better Leaders. Who Cares?

Public Sector’s Leading Ladies: US Vice President, Head of the International Monetary Fund, the US … [+]

The mountain of evidence keeps growing. Women leaders outperform. Especially during a crisis. Companies with more of them do better. Countries led by women are managing the Covid crisis better than their male counterparts. Why aren’t we all celebrating a global human awakening to the miracle of women’s century-long rise this International Women’s Day? Because only half the world is listening. And no, it’s not women vs men. It’s public vs private sector.

In these kinds of arguments, it’s best to put your data where your mouth is. So here it is. Let’s start with the claim that countries run by women have better managed the Covid crisis. I first wrote about this in the early waves of the pandemic and it was later backed up by research at UCL (and reviewed in December – it still holds true). You can try and debunk the claim, an exercise I undertook with my colleague Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. But a more recent study adds ammunition. American states ran by women governors lost fewer of their people to Covid.

Next, the corporate data. A growing number of studies over the past decade have been linking bottom line financial results to more gender balanced leadership teams. Consulting firms started this off, followed by banks, investors, media and others. Some will argue this doesn’t prove causality. It doesn’t, but the big asset managers seem to be buying it. A growing number of them, including Blackrock, AXA, and others worth a combined US$13 trillion, have publicly said they won’t invest in companies that aren’t gender balanced.

PROMOTED

Now, let’s get down to individual metrics. Leadership experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman use 360 assessments to evaluate effectiveness. Over years now, they have shown that women are rated as more competent on almost every dimension of leadership – by their colleagues. Their first study revealed a leadership effectiveness gap in favour of women. Their latest shows the gap almost doubling during the pandemic, from 3.3 to 5.7, nudging women’s relative performance ever higher.

So you’d think we’d all kind of congratulate each other on a job well done. We’ve educated and empowered women for decades now. Time to reap the rewards. Right? Only partly.

The photo at the top of this article is worth a million words. Women rule. The public sector. Women have now been appointed to some of the most prestigious jobs in government, economics and trade. OK, some of these roles merit the infamous ‘glass cliff’ label, awarded to women only when there isn’t a man left standing who’d take the job. The WTO, for example, is certainly in need of saving. Some will argue that the pressure to appoint women over competent men is overwhelming, unavoidable and unfair. Others that this is the sign of a truer meritocracy. But indisputably, the public sector seems more open to handing the reins over to women. These women now wield immense power and influence – and are role models for generations of men and women coming up behind.

The Ratio of Male Private Sector CEOs

So what’s up with the supposedly rational, results-driven business sector? What’s the love affair with overwhelmingly bro-cultured tech giants nobody trusts? (Tech companies used to be at the leading edge of gender balance). Or the opaque financial world overwhelmingly run by men despite the research pointing to the embarrassingly emotional, testosterone-driven relationship men have with risk. Or the well documented preference companies seem to have for confidence over competence?

A leadership coach wrote a piece that echoes what I often hear from corporate executives I’ve worked with over the past decade. He quotes the Harvard piece referred to above and concludes that women make better leaders. Then he moves to ‘what women can do’ to get recognised and promoted. That’s the nub of the problem in a nutshell.

Companies expect talent to fight for power. That’s what men do. Women don’t. They fight for purpose. That’s why men sit atop the corporate world and women are now reaching the top of the public and non-profit sectors. That’s also why we need more women running businesses. Male dominated companies not only underperform. They are bad for the rest of us (think tech and finance, AI and subprimes).

Most companies expect women to play by the existing rules if they want to ‘get to the top.’ That’s what the leadership coach referenced above told me in our twitter conversation. That he ‘lives in the real world,’ so he coaches women to succeed in the current system. Instead, we are in urgent need of men skilled at coaching other men how to adapt the system. What can women do? “The most important thing we can challenge,” suggests Chamorro-Premuzic, “is the idea that women need to emulate men. In fact, given that gender differences in leadership potential more often favor women than men, it would be more logical to ask men to emulate women.”

That’s why this International Women’s Day hashtag, #ChooseToChallenge, is so apt. We need leaders of all genders to accept the systemic challenge of adapting yesterday’s organisations to today’s talent and market realities. It’s time to stop fixing women (by making them behave more like men), and stop blaming men about bias. We need to be bigger and bolder. If we have any hope of Building Back Better, we will want to Build Back Balanced.

The biggest innovation in the world today isn’t the little computer you hold in your pocket or purse. It’s that humans have evolved far enough to let the other half of the human race into education, work and power. And that this experiment is paying off – in performance. That’s good for everyone.

How ironic that the corporate guys so often preaching ‘disruption’ are proving so slow to embrace its lessons. This International Women’s Day, it’s time to up their game.

I am CEO of 20-first, a global gender-balance consultancy. I work with C-suite teams to achieve real gender balance by reframing the issue: on leadership, culture and

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