Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills


Here is an excerpt from a classic HBR article written by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman for the Harvard Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive email alerts, please click here.

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For the first time in history, a major political party in the United States has several women who have declared their candidacy to be their party’s presidential nominee. But TV pundits have been questioning whether, despite the progress indicated by the huge influx of women elected into Congress last fall, the U.S. is ever going to elect a woman to the country’s highest leadership position.

This is baffling to us, especially in light of what we see in our corporate research. In two articles from 2012 ( and ) we discussed findings from our analysis of 360-degree reviews that women in leadership positions were perceived as being every bit as effective as men. In fact, while the differences were not huge, women scored at a statistically significantly higher level than men on the vast majority of leadership competencies we measured.We recently updated that research, again looking at our database of 360-degree reviews in which we ask individuals to rate each leaders’ effectiveness overall and to judge how strong they are on specific competencies, and had similar findings: that women in leadership positions are perceived just as — if not more — competent as their male counterparts.Still, the disturbing fact is that the percentage of women in senior leadership roles in businesses has remained relatively steady since we conducted our original research. . And those numbers are declining globally.

There are of course many factors that contribute to this dearth of women at senior levels. For centuries, there have been broad, cultural biases against women and . 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  disputes that). Lots of research has shown that s, 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.

As you can see in the chart below, women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty. In fact, they were thought to be more effective in 84% of the competencies that we most frequently measure.

According to our updated data, men were rated as being better on two capabilities —”develops strategic perspective” and “technical or professional expertise,” which were the same capabilities where they earned higher ratings in our original research as well.

Only 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs are women.

According to an analysis of thousands of 360-degree reviews, women outscored men on 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones.

Capability Women’s percentile and Men’s percentile
Takes initiative:                                                  55.6   48.2
Resilience                                                           54.7   49.3
Practices self-development                             54.8   49.6
Drives for results                                               53.9   48.8
Displays high integrity and honesty                54.0   49.1
Develops others                                                54.1   49.8
Inspires and motivates others                         53.9   49.7
Bold leadership                                                 53.2   49.8
Builds relationships                                          53.2   49.9
Champions change                                           53.1   49.8
Establishes stretch goals                                 52.6   49.7
Collaboration and teamwork                            52.6   50.2
Connects to the outside world                         51.6   50.3
Communicates powerfully and prolifically      51.8   50.7
Solves problems and analyzes issues             51.5   50.4
Leadership speed                                              51.5   50.5
Innovates                                                            51.4   51.0
Technical or professional expertise                 50.1   51.1
Develops strategic perspective                       50.1   51.4

The t-values of all data are statistically significant.

Interestingly, our data shows that when women are asked to assess themselves, they are not as generous in their ratings. In the last few years we created a self-assessment that measures, among other things, confidence. We’ve been collecting data since 2016 (from 3,876 men and 4,779 women so far) on levels of confidence leaders have in themselves over their careers and we saw some interesting trends.

When we compare confidence ratings for men and women, we see a large difference in those under 25. It’s highly probable that those women are far more competent than they think they are, while the male leaders are overconfident and . At age 40, the confidence ratings merge. As people age their confidence generally increases; surprisingly, over the age of 60 we see male confidence decline, while female confidence increases. According to our data, men gain just 8.5 percentile points in confidence from age 25 to their 60+ years. Women, on the other hand, gain 29 percentile points. One note: This is what we see in our data though we recognize that  on whether women truly lack confidence at early stages in their career.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a coauthor of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable” and the book The New Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders (McGraw Hill, 2019). Connect with Jack at
Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a coauthor of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable” and the book The New Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders (McGraw Hill, 2019). Connect with Joe at



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