Are Women Better Leaders than Men?

Jack Zenger

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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We’ve all heard the claims, the theories, and the speculation about the ways leadership styles vary between women and men. Our latest survey data puts some hard numbers into the mix.

Our data come from 360 evaluations, so what they are tracking is the judgment of a leader’s peers, bosses, and direct reports. We ask these individuals to rate each leader’s effectiveness overall and also to judge how strong he or she is on the 16 competencies that our 30 years of research shows are most important to overall leadership effectiveness. We ask, for instance, how good a leader is at taking the initiative, developing others, inspiring and motivating, and pursuing their own development.

Joseph Folkman

Our latest survey of 7,280 leaders, which our organization evaluated in 2011, confirms some seemingly eternal truths about men and women leaders in the workplace but also holds some surprises. Our dataset was generated from leaders in some of the most successful and progressive organizations in the world both public and private, government and commercial, domestic and international.

In the confirmation category is our first finding: The majority of leaders (64%) are still men. And the higher the level, the more men there are: In this group, 78% of top managers were men, 67% at the next level down (that is, senior executives reporting directly to the top managers), 60% at the manager level below that.

Similarly, most stereotypes would have us believe that female leaders excel at “nurturing” competencies such as developing others and building relationships, and many might put exhibiting integrity and engaging in self-development in that category as well. And in all four cases our data concurred — women did score higher than men.

But the women’s advantages were not at all confined to traditionally women’s strengths. In fact at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows:

Specifically, at all levels, women are rated higher in fully 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been thought of as particularly male strengths. As it happened, men outscored women significantly on only one management competence in this survey — the ability to develop a strategic perspective.

[Zenger and Fokkman then analyze the data during the remainer of this article. To read all of it, please click here.]

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Jack Zenger is the CEO and Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. They are co-authors of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable,” and The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate (McGraw-Hill, 2009).


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