A recent report by management consultancy Hudson, claimed that in business fewer women are making it to the top despite the fact that their inherent leadership skills could well make them better managers and leaders. So could the best man for the job be a woman? Verity Gough investigates...
When the Hudson report was published in October 2008, it concluded what perhaps a lot of women had known for some time: the struggle to smash the glass ceiling and beyond still exists despite the inroads made by women at the corporate level of organisations. Yet, research suggests that women naturally possess the skills needed to successfully lead others, which begs the question: if ladies potentially make better leaders, why aren't there more of them in the boardroom?
Putting on an act
According to an analysis of 45 leadership studies by Northwestern University in Chicago, the best bosses are inspirational mentors who encourage their subordinates to develop their abilities and creatively change their organisations. This is referred to as a 'transformational' style of leadership - similar to the way in which good teachers manage their students and something that women do naturally. In contrast, men adopt a 'transactional' management style which is more likely to see them dole out punishments for poor performance and reward good behaviour.
The study revealed that women's leadership style not only saw them doing just as well as men, but in fact they were out-performing their male counterparts. But despite the optimistic outlook, those who adopted a tough "command and control" leadership style met with resistance and suspicion from employees.
In fact, according to both studies, women are faced with a dichotomy: on one hand, if they act like a leader, using typically men characteristics and abandoning their typically female personality profile, they are perceived as being hard, but if they act like a woman, they are perceived as being inefficient, since typically male personality traits are considered more effective leadership characteristics.
"The 'dominant coalition' inside the boards of organisations still favours male clones of the current leadership," explains Etienne Van Keer, executive director at Hudson R&D and author of the report. "We found that women tend not to push themselves to the fore of an organisation's thinking: old habits die hard, and women still like 'to be asked'. But the demographic evolution of the population and the changing nature of business will force organisations to pay more attention to what women have to offer," she adds.
The science bit
Indeed, in this changing global business environment it seems these 'female' characteristics are more in demand. In Daniel H Pink’s latest book: 'A Whole New Mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future,' he encourages businesses to be more right-brained in their thinking particularly in the light of the shift from what Pink describes as the 'Information Age' into the 'Conceptual Age'. So shouldn't it follow that women - who are generally regarded to be more right-brained than men - should be the next generation of great leaders?
"We still work on this premise that 'I'm your boss because I can your job better than you,'" says Alistair Schofield, managing director of Extensor which provides leadership training and development courses. "But leadership is different because it's about change management. It's about taking people with you, it's about having vision, guesswork, ambiguity, and in order for others to follow, you need to inspire and connect with people, it's about a relationship," he adds.
Schofield explains that in order to be a good leader a combination of both right-brained and left-brained characteristics are required. "What we know about the brain is we have fun, play and experiment on the right side as well as dealing with ambiguity and learning while the left side is more to do with structure, rules, formula, essential to how we cope in a complex world," he says.
So is one better than the other? "No – they are different," says Schofield. "We need logic, structure, leadership, balance, we need all these things, but traditionally we have looked for all of these qualities in one person and we want THE leader rather than leadership."
He explains that by combining the characteristics of the right-brained or 'limbic' approach typically exhibited by women with a left-brained or 'cerebral' way of thinking favoured by men; you are more likely to strike a good balance.
This is echoed by Joanne Whitbourn of the Chartered Management Institute: "What matters are the skills an individual has, not the gender they are," she says. "It's really important to have an ability to lead so it's about providing a clear sense of purpose and the ability to inspire trust and respect. Our members tell us that it's really important they’ve got an ability to resolve problems and it doesn’t have to be by finding common ground it can be about getting people to air their views and working out the best route forward for business."
Like Schofield, Whitbourn also believes that being able to manage change is another key attribute of a good leader, as is the ability to 'muck in'. "Inspiration comes from leaders who can prove they’ve done it themselves and are prepared to get their hands dirty, roll their sleeves up and get involved, so it's really not about gender but it is about leading from the front," she reflects.
Sex and power
While the intricacies of the brain are fascinating, there are many other factors that come into play when it comes to seeking out good leaders, and for women, the added barriers of an age-old gender battle certainly don’t help matters.
The 2008 Sex and Power study conducted by the Equal Opportunities Commission revealed that very few women have broken through the glass ceiling in the past three years and make up just 11 per cent of FTSE-100 directorships. In fact calculations suggest that, at the current rate of progress, it would take 73 years for women to be equally represented.
Furthermore, research by the Institute of Economic Affairs controversially claimed that rather than worrying about the gender pay gap, managers should concentrate on the day-to-day challenges of leadership. Is there any wonder that equality relations are teetering precariously on the edge?
So how can women ever be expected to break into the top leadership roles if everything, apart from nature, is against them?
One way that can help women deal with the challenges they face is via mentoring, which has seen a huge increase in recent years. Organisations like MentorSET, a women-only independently funded organisation that places mentees from the science, technology and engineering sectors with suitable mentors has been central to supporting women on their way up the corporate ladder.
Yet while this sort of 'sisterhood support' has perhaps developed as a response to the infamous but prevalent 'old boys' networks', there is no doubt about its effectiveness: "Mentoring, women networks can be really helpful and can show much younger women role models and how women can ethically get to be a good leader and be true to themselves," says Claire McCarthy, adviser, organisation and resourcing at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
"The Hudson report says women are acting like men but in this current climate, we need to be able to trust our leaders, so that's not going to be advantageous for women – they need to present a true and honest picture of themselves to the organisation," she adds.
The reality is that with the pace of change increasing exponentially, constantly and the world globalising, the speed of decision making accelerating, the skills needed to lead effectively, inspire trust and confidence cannot fall to one person, or one gender. Let's hope that the next generation of leaders with be a collaboration rather than a battle of the sexes.