Leadership Library Review — “Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills”

August 2019

“Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills”

by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in Harvard Business Review (June 25, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

Citing stark statistics about how women occupy tiny, single-digit percentages – 5% and under – of the CEO positions in top companies worldwide, Zenger and Folkman assert [authors’ hyperlinks]:

For centuries, there have been broad, cultural biases against women and stereotypes die slowly. People have long believed that many women elect not to aspire to the highest ranks of the organization and take themselves out of the running (though recent research disputes that). Lots of research has shown that unconscious bias places a significant role in hiring and promotion decisions, which also contributes to the lower number of women in key positions. […]  Our current data presents even more compelling evidence that this bias is incorrect and unwarranted. Women are perceived by their managers — particularly their male managers — to be slightly more effective than men at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area of the organization. That includes the traditional male bastions of IT, operations, and legal.

In this short article, after presenting compelling summaries of their data, the authors advise that men who are making promotion decisions consider their unconscious bias; they should “pause and ask, ‘Are we succumbing to unconscious bias? Are we automatically giving the nod to a man when there’s an equally competent woman?’”

Why do I like it?

I like that Zenger and Folkman not only offer crisp assessments about the nature and origins of discrimination against women leaders, but that they do two others things especially well in their data reporting that comport with my experience as a leadership coach to both men and women.  First, they analyze the granular differences in men’s and women’s evaluated competence in key measurable leadership skills (which generally validate my women clients’ self-reported experience of their competence relative to men colleagues); and, second, they address the association between age and confidence in men and women.  Women start out as less confident than men and then “[a]t age 40, the confidence ratings merge [for men and women]. As people age their confidence generally increases; surprisingly, over the age of 60 we see male confidence decline, while female confidence increases.”  These dynamics appear constantly in my coaching practice, and I regard age – and how my clients perceive age – as a vital factor for my women and men clients to consider when they are grappling with confidence issues.

In what situations would this be useful?

Zenger and Folkman’s information is possibly most useful to men – especially men at the board-of-directors levels and C-suite level – who are unwittingly diminishing their organizations’ potential by not elevating women to top leadership positions.

Of course, Zenger and Folkman’s data is also useful to women.  Across all of my leadership development work (coaching, consulting and training) I frequently encounter women who struggle with finding their voice in a world that is systemically and unconsciously biased against them.  One major reason for the struggle is because – and research backs this up – that women leaders tend to be perceived as either competent or likeable, but not both.  In my experience, the “competent v. likeable” dichotomy is less of a paralyzing double-bind than it is a gendered polarity that can be managed, and polarity management is a capacity we are more able to grow into as we mature.

There is a lot of data about women leaders that goes against stereotypes, and from my experiences as a leader and as a leadership coach, I’ve come to believe that the most effective adaptive approach to navigating the likeable/competent polarity is authenticity.  In my view, in its narrative aspects authenticity is crucial to how women, people of color (perhaps African-Americans in particular, at least in the U.S.) and leaders from other under-represented populations can leverage their life stories in order to amplify their unique leadership voices and transcend obstacles by focusing on the larger arc of their individual life purpose.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For more information about unconscious bias, I highly recommend raising your own consciousness by taking Harvard’s “Project Implicit” Implicit Bias Assessment Tests (on race, gender, age and more), if you haven’t already done so.  I encourage you to be gentle with yourself regarding your results, and to use them as motivation to get curious about your biases and find ways to challenge your assumptions.

For more evidence of the effectiveness of women leaders, see Scaling Leadership – the latest book published earlier this year by Bob Anderson and Bill Adams – which includes a passionate section discussing the results of their 360 evaluation data analysis that show how and why women leaders out-perform men leaders.  They write, “The predominance of relationship strengths [in the top leadership competencies] suggests that women are more effective because they lead relationally.  Doing so also requires a high degree of self-awareness and authenticity” (p. 46).  If you’re interested in a contemporary real-life example, in my opinion an epitome of what Anderson and Adams are describing is the leadership of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, in the wake of the terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques in March of this year.

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