In the most recent run of our Women in Leadership Learning Journey, we once again asked participants what characteristics and behaviours they feel make good leaders. As with the 16 other runs of this program, the answers were significantly different from the mixed gender or all men’s groups in other programs. While men focus on clear strategies, vision and goals, women seem to favour soft skills and people skills. Does this make women good or bad leaders? How does this impact their performance in leadership roles compared to men?
Diversity, Inclusion and Leadership – The Business Case
Research increasingly indicates that diverse and inclusive workplaces do better than largely homogenous workplaces. 85% of CEOs whose organisations have a diversity and inclusiveness strategy say it has enhanced business performance[i]. We also know that diversity on executive teams increases profitability. Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams are 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability while companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation[ii].
The business case for promoting diverse workplaces and diverse leadership is clear. However, if diversity is to have any real impact, inclusion is required and promoting and supporting diverse voices will create this inclusive culture. For example, having more women visible in leadership positions will, in turn, support other women on their leadership journeys.
Gender and Leadership today
As we have seen through the rich conversations in our Women in Leadership programs, it is also interesting to think about what women specifically bring to the table in addition to profitability and value creation. The pandemic has provided us with stark examples of countries with female leaders doing far better in terms of their response to the crisis than their male counterparts[iii]. According to analysis on available data, the COVID-19 crisis points to female leadership as a marker for healthier and more equal societies that place social and environmental wellbeing at the core of national policymaking[iv].
But again, does this mean that women are inherently better leaders than men? Are women better equipped to face crises than men are? Through this pandemic, we have seen that the best responses have been characterised by leadership driven by the supposedly ‘feminine’ qualities of empathy, compassion, listening and collaboration[v]– qualities similar to the one’s participants from our Women in Leadership programs seem to value in leaders. It is also interesting to note that countries with more inclusive cultures have also incorporated these ‘feminine’ qualities in their Covid-19 responses i.e. inclusive cultures that value both men and women equally have leaders who have been able to weather the pandemic better[vi]. This indicates that women are not better or worse than their male counterparts, but gender socialisation might provide women with valuable leadership skills suited to dealing with challenges that we will face in the future. In turn, men who value traditionally ‘feminine’ behaviours are also better equipped.
The need for Gender Neutral Inclusive Leadership
In addition to demonstrating the skills and behaviours women bring to the table, the pandemic has also shown us that inclusive, diverse teams and societies are more resilient than largely homogenous ones[vii]. The pandemic has also provided an opportunity for us to consider new ways of thinking and working, new approaches to business and a greater emphasis on community-focused solutions[viii]. It so happens that inclusive leaders also exhibit the same traditionally ‘feminine’ characteristics and behaviours.[ix]
Now, more than ever, we need to work together to focus on concrete solutions, characteristics and behaviours that can help us heal and constructively move past this crisis. Particularly in this new virtual world, it is important for us to focus on connectedness and relationship building. Perhaps this is the best time to intentionally start thinking beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’; to instead look at the unique skills different groups bring to the table to create a more motivated, productive, engaged and happy workforce.
[i] PWC. 18th Annual Global CEO Survey: A marketplace without boundaries? Responding to disruption, 2015.
[ii] McKinsey & Company, Delivering Through Diversity, 2018.
[iii] Forbes, What Do Countries with The Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common? Women Leaders, 2020.
[iv] Open Democracy, Women in power: countries with female leaders suffer six times fewer Covid deaths and will recover sooner from recession, 2020.
[v] The Conversation. Why women leaders are excelling during the coronavirus pandemic, 2020.
[vi] The Conversation. Why women leaders are excelling during the coronavirus pandemic, 2020.
[vii] Forbes, 8 HR Leaders Share the Crucial Management Insights They’ve Learned During COVID, 2020.
[viii] Mercer, No Colleague or Client Left Behind During the Pandemic, 2020.
[ix] Korn Ferry, The Inclusive Leader, 2019.