Gender diversity and leading women: One size does not fit all 

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Inge Woudstra looks at the failure of organisations to keep women in. She argues the solution is in developing leaders to flex their style so it works for both men and women. Women need to be motivated differently, and require a different feedback process. 

When developing leaders, trainers can draw on a wide variety of models and research of what good leaders are, need to know and need to do. Interestingly all of these assume that leaders lead people, just like we are all the same. Of course, there are the situational and behavioural theories that allow for adapting to the situation or type of followers, and do show that different people may indeed need something else from their managers. But what if there were differences between men and women? What if women have different preferences in how they prefer to be led than men?

Gender diversity in the human brain

There are differences in how the male and female brain function. This means there are differences in how women are motivated, take decisions and prefer to be challenged, monitored and receive feedback. None of this is taken into account in most current leadership and team research. In fact past research is typically based on working with student populations (which, until recently were predominantly male). It’s no wonder then that leadership development programmes do not take into account differences and line managers are not taught to be aware of differences. 

Gender diversity lower near the top

From the figures it becomes instantly clear, though, that something isn’t working for women in organisations. Depending on the industry 30-50% of women are leaving between the age of 30-40. From in-depth exit interviews it becomes apparent that – unlike what most people think - starting a family is often not the main driver. Barbara Annis, a gender intelligence expert, finds that 30% indeed do mention family reasons. However 50-60% mention the male-dominated environment, feeling excluded and undervalued as key reasons for leaving. McKinsey, in their latest report Women Matter concludes that mindset and culture need to change. The Cracking the Code research by 30%Club/KPMG concludes that line managers are a key factor in progress (or stagnation) of women’s careers. As a result gender diversity at the top is still an issue. 

So what is it that team leaders and line managers can do? It’s all about adapting to women’s needs, and expanding the leadership tool box. It’s about finding ways of leading a team that bring out the best in both men and women. 

Top sports coaches and gender diversity in leadership

In interviews with top sports coaches all of them stressed that they have always seen each player as an individual. It’s not possible to define what works for men and what works for women. However, they did have to learn some new behaviours when they started working with all-female teams. They learned to expand their leadership toolkit, and what they learned can be vital for line managers too. 

Challenge vs. encourage

Challenging men is a useful strategy to motivate a team to perform better. Getting angry, setting challenging targets or setting up internal competitions are all effective ways to motivate men. It usually spurs them on to push on, aim higher, fight back and show what they are worth. 

The impact of these strategies on a group of women, however is not the same. When using similar strategies for women, it results in reduced confidence. Women in the team feel personally hurt - as they don’t want to let the coach down - and it damages the relationship with the coach. As a result they give up, or pull together and rebel against the coach. 

Sports coaches that work with women’s teams quickly learn to use strategies that are more supportive and encouraging. This includes establishing a strong personal relationship, and keeping track of ‘good performance’ moments and relating those back with supporting evidence. 

Check-in ratio

Men are usually happy with feedback on their endresults. When they do not receive feedback they assume they did well. If there is feedback they take in where they need to improve, and enjoy working on that in isolation. 

Women however, thrive on more regular feedback. When not receiving any after or during a match, they will assume something is wrong, and lose confidence quickly. Coaches learn that it works well to give women positive feedback more often, and not just on results but also on process. 

Different ways of competing

The different responses to the coach are linked to how men and women compete. Men compete on being the biggest, the strongest or the best. When a challenge is set they get a chance to prove themselves in the hierarchy. When there is an issue they need to solve, they enjoy doing it alone, so they can claim the credit; another chance to prove their prowess. 

Women, on the other hand, compete on relationships, being nicest and most popular. It can be damaging for relationships to be the best, so challenges don’t work as well for them. 

Competing on being the strongest is visible and easy to measure. However, it’s hard to measure whether you are still ‘nice’ and have a good relationship. Therefore, girls get used to ‘checking in’ with each other from a young age. When they ask ‘What do you think of my drawing?’ or ‘Can I still come to your birthday party?’ they are in fact checking if they are still have a good bond with the other and verifying their place in the girls’ hierarchy. Girls learn habits of continuously confirming each other. If a coach regularly checks in on how they are doing, and gives regular feedback it keeps their confidence up and they feel valued. 

Line managers and gender diversity

Top sports coaches show that understanding gender differences can make a real impact on team performance. Leadership models and research need to catch up. Line managers would do well to realise one size does not fit all, and learn to flex their style to what works for both men and women. 


Inge Woudstra is author of the book’ ‘Be Gender Smart: The Key to Career Success for Women' and director of W2O Consulting & Training. She is an experienced researcher, trainer and consultant and works with organisations on gender diversity. Inge runs Gender Smart training programmes for leaders, managers and women. 

About Inge Woudstra


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By DonR
15th Feb 2016 22:01

Timely reminder especially in New Zealand, where we have a shortage of leaders/managers/supervisors across a wide range of occupations/industries.

Can I take it the author also includes older folk [not just older men] as well as folk from another culture in this line of thinking? It does however, in my view, get back to the requirement that has been there as long as I can recall, that you as a leader should always keep in mind what it is that will enthuse individuals in your Team. Some of the traits mentioned as being applicable to women, can also apply to blokes.

I recall very clearly working with someone who became a good mate, who was extremely talented as a motor mechanic but who was afraid of taking on responsibility for others. He was comfortable with his tools, but feared being asked to take on a supervisory role in case he failed. Thankfully we had what I consider an "old-fashioned" boss who did treat everyone as an individual and over a period of near 2 years finally trained/encouraged/cajoled almost, and sure enough he turned out to be a great manager..............especially great as a large part of his training entailed passing on to others his vast knowledge and skillset.

As a parting comment, I worry that there has developed a mindset of possibly "tokenism" whereby organisations set a goal of x number of women in supervisory/management positions. This does not serve the best interests of women in senior roles, as I have observed a number of instances where those appointed to get the proportions right, have failed through no fault of there own, but simply because they did not have the skill/ability/enthusiasm even to be leaders. Net result!! The observation they failed because they were women, when the real culprit was their boss who should have realized right at the start they were not cut out to be leaders. Sad but true.

Cheers. DonR.

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