Much attention has been paid to how female leaders, such as Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, and Sanna Marin, have been particularly adept at managing the current health crisis. Research has also shown that nations led by women outperform, on average, their male-led counterparts in terms of general reputation and net positive influence and that those female-led countries do better in terms of perceptions linked to governance, COVID-19 handling, business and trade, and international relations.
But let’s be clear, much of the recognition has focused on the fact that these successful leaders have been women, not on the actual nuts and bolts of their success. However, the reasons behind the obsessive (to put it gently) media attention on women aside, is it possible that there are gender traits of leadership that can explain this difference in success between female and male leaders?
Dee Dee Myers, former White House Press Secretary, seems to believe so. In her book Why Women Should Rule the World, Myers comments on the Four Cs of women leaders: communication, consensus, creativity, and collaboration. According to Myers, women seem more willing to listen, more interested in building consensus, and slightly more likely to be transformational leaders who collectively set goals and empower their teams to achieve them. These traits are the ones that are particularly effective in leading the way out of a crisis and political leaders and voters alike consider women leaders “to be more pragmatic and results-oriented…less consumed by the constant who’s-up-and-who’s-down scorekeeping aspect of the political game.”
This long-term orientation towards results, combined with their ability to compromise, listen, and work across party lines, is key in helping women lead effectively in today’s polarized environment in which partisanship and divisive narratives continue to stall progress. The question is: If these traits equip women to lead during times of crisis and we live in an age of constant instability, why aren’t more women on boards and in high-level roles in public service and leadership?
It could be argued that there are not as many women in these positions of power because the stakes are so high for those that finally do achieve the leadership position and thus the path becomes steeper for those who follow. According to Myers – whose book was written in 2009, well before our current pandemic and yet is still intensely relevant – there are four gaps that explain why women fail when in leadership positions:
- The resources gap: Women are given fewer resources to achieve the same results as their male counterparts.
- The authority gap: Many women in public life have a job with more responsibility than authority.
- The credit gap: Women get less credit, or less of a share of the collective credit, for the same accomplishments.
- The expectations gap: Women are judged by their performance, while men are often judged by their potential. Furthermore, women are expected to embody the complex duality of authoritative likeability.
In addition, female leaders face a particular obstacle during times of crisis, whether it is a firm-specific crisis or a broader macroeconomic crisis. This is what Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam coined as the “glass cliff“, in which a female leader is put in charge in order to save a company in trouble. As Ryan and Haslam detailed in 2005 (again, well before our current pandemic), the glass cliff refers to the overrepresentation of women in precarious or risky positions. Women face barriers to climb the corporate ladder (the glass ceiling), but once they do achieve a top role, they are more likely than men to find themselves in a precarious or risky position (the glass cliff).
In regards to the political arena, there are plenty of examples of glass cliffs. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister at a very difficult economic time. A similar situation was faced by Theresa May, who became PM when David Cameron resigned as leader of the Conservative Party following the Brexit referendum. An example from Spain: Inés Arrimadas took over Ciudadanos, a center-left political party in Spain, with the almost impossible mission of surmounting a calamitous electoral result in November 2019. There are also plenty of examples in the corporate world, among the most striking of which is that of Marissa Mayer, who had been hired as the CEO of Yahoo and received an abundance of scrutiny as she peered over the glass cliff. A 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal, for example, nearly slipped into gloating over the possibility of Mayer’s tumble.
Studies proved not only that women tend to be hired when a situation is difficult, but that it is possible they are often put in place as scapegoats.
But to move from the anecdote to the evidence, Ryan and Haslam conducted research on the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of a male or female board member. What they found is that, in times of crisis, companies who appointed women to their boards were more likely to have underperformed than those who appointed men. In other words, when a company was in trouble, this was a trigger for the appointment of female leaders.
Later on, Ryan and Haslam conducted three experimental studies that presented management graduates and high school students with companies that were either experiencing growth or a crisis. The study participants then had to select a leader for these organizations from a set of options which included women and men with the same qualifications and experience. Not only did these studies prove that women tend to be hired when a situation is difficult, but that it is possible they are often put in place as scapegoats. The results did also show that, in times of crisis, organizations lean towards leaders that show honesty, integrity, adaptability, security, collaboration, and empathy – the traits that are more often displayed by women.
As Margaret Thatcher said: “The cocks may crow, but it’s the hen that lays the egg. If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” Women are often transformational leaders, they create change. As the world becomes increasingly volatile and uncertain, this leadership style will be essential for organizations to navigate the challenges of the XXI century successfully. But in order to do so, their most talented leaders can’t fall off the cliff.
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