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What is Female Leadership?

Black woman business owner and baker

Former US President Barack Obama once said, “I’m absolutely confident that for two years if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything... living standards and outcomes." This wasn’t just one politician’s personal viewpoint; it’s actually backed up by research. Let’s take a deeper dive into the differences between male and female leadership to see how they stack up against each other and why we should be advocating for more women in leadership roles.

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Does Gender Really Matter in Leadership? Female Leadership vs. Male Leadership

It might surprise you as a man to learn that there is a wide canyon between genders when it comes to leadership styles. However, this probably won’t shock you if you’re a woman. Studies over the last few decades demonstrate that most women use what’s called the transformational leadership style, whereas men do not. While this dichotomy used to be considered a radical concept in the 1970s and 1980s when it was first explored in research, it is now deemed common knowledge.

Transformational leadership allows people to elevate each other in many areas.

It’s not just about reaching work goals or winning in sports. This style of leadership helps people with overall motivation and encourages them to improve their entire lives, not just their performance in one discrete area. Characteristics of female leaders include:

  • They set a model for morality, fairness, and integrity.

  • They have high expectations but are clear about the goals they set.

  • They aren’t afraid to seek aspirational or even improbable achievements.

  • They encourage others and provide recognition and support.

  • They use emotions as part of their motivational strategies.

  • They encourage diversity and inclusivity.

  • They help others look beyond their self-interests and embrace the bigger picture.

  • They spend a lot of time coaching others and helping them with personal development.

  • They place emphasis on teamwork and communication as a path to success.

Are there downsides to female leadership styles? Yes. People who like to work independently sometimes don't like being checked on and would rather just turn their work in at predetermined deadlines. They like to problem-solve on their own and can feel bogged down by too much emphasis on group activity and team building. It can be easy for transformational leaders to fall into the trap of becoming unrealistic about goals or so focused on personal communication that they lose track of other project elements.

Men, on the other hand, tend to use what is known as transactional leadership. This is a more conventional leadership style where the leader is a dominant personality. Transactional leaders lean toward strict expectations but don’t welcome questions about goals or tactics. Other traits of transactional leaders are:

  • They are results, not process, focused.

  • They don’t engage much with their subordinates, other than to give orders.

  • They only take charge of situations or become more involved once a problem has become severe.

  • They hold subordinates responsible for mistakes but not themselves.

  • They believe they are allowing others to work independently, but subordinates may feel abandoned or lacking in encouragement.

  • They don’t value communication as highly as transformational leaders, so they may not provide clear directions on how to meet their expectations.

If you lean toward transformational leadership, transactional leadership can seem harsh or even militaristic. However, it can work with people who are highly reward-driven, like hedge fund managers or athletes in non-team sports, or those in high-risk professions who want clear-cut guidance (pilots, surgeons, firefighters, etc.). People who bristle at the "touchy-feely" aspects of transformational leadership may welcome a more straightforward transactional leader. And, as you'll read below, there are times when this method of leading is advantageous.

Although the differences between male and female leadership styles are certainly reinforced by cultural and societal norms (see below), there are also physiological factors at play. Female hormones like oxytocin instinctively make them more likely to care about others’ well-being and want to connect with them. Women’s brains are better wired for communication and putting words to emotions.

Conversely, men are neurologically prone to favour rewards and results. They fear vulnerability because it releases cortisol, a stress hormone involved in fight-or-flight responses. Men therefore prefer logical problem-solving approaches to emotional leadership.

Asian woman business leader communicating with team

Is a Masculine or Feminine Leadership Style More Effective?

As you might have already guessed, the feminine transformational leadership style is more effective under many circumstances. However, it’s not as cut and dried as you might think.

First, there are instances where a transactional leadership style might be preferred. For example, scientists doing research in a laboratory may not appreciate what could be construed as a well-meaning but intrusive boss checking in all the time and perhaps even placing too much emphasis on qualitative versus quantitative results. In the heat of military battle or in the middle of an attempted corporate takeover, transformational leadership may be too future-focused to deal with harsh realities of the moment.

There is also the issue of perception. Studies and surveys show that political persuasion can influence how people perceive and welcome different leadership styles. In the United States, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to recognize transformational versus transactional leadership and to say they believe the female style is better.

In general, experts in management agree that a blend of the two leadership styles is actually best. Transactional leadership can be efficient, but it has deficits when it comes to innovation, creating long-term strategies, and employee development. Transformational leadership is ideal for promoting change. However, it can fall short when it comes to details about process and daily workflow. Put the two together, and you have the recipe for everything you need to both motivate employees and get the job done nine to five.

This doesn't necessarily mean having women share leadership roles with men or that men need to share their top positions with women. Individuals can develop positive aspects of transactional leadership to complement their natural transformational tendencies, and vice versa. This makes it possible to achieve sorely needed leadership improvement in the C-suite, on boards of directors, and in upper management, which are places where transactional leadership tends to be the norm and could be tempered with a blended approach.

What Are Barriers and Challenges to Female Leadership?

So, if a mix of transformational and transactional leadership is best for businesses, why don’t we see more female leadership in the workplace? There are multiple reasons for this imbalance.

Studies show that women have the harder job when it comes to gaining respect as a workplace leader. Unlike men, who must only demonstrate strength to be considered effective leaders, women must show both strength and sensitivity. But this can backfire, when women are deemed “too emotional” or they aren’t “likable” enough or “shrill” when they stand up for what they believe in. It’s a tightrope walk that few women have been able to navigate.

Women also have a tendency to underestimate their leadership skills. This isn’t a biological trait but one that has developed in females due to societal oppression and biases. While women may have caught up to men with voting rights and equal opportunities on paper, they are still the victims of significant pay gaps, harassment, and prejudice that teaches them to undervalue themselves.

Men in many cultures have been taught to brand themselves and that speaking about their accomplishments is admirable. Alternatively, women are often labelled boastful or immodest for doing the same thing. And it’s difficult for women to rise to the top in many career tracks to begin with, so it’s harder to prove what they’re capable of without a track record. It’s going to take breaking through these barriers to propel more women to leadership roles so they can model success and help others up the ladder behind them.

Women marching for equal rights
Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash

Workplace biases aren’t just about gender. Racial prejudice is also a hurdle to leadership and long-term corporate achievement. Minority women have both biases against them, which not only hurt these women but also present a double barrier to corporate success. Fortunately, inclusivity and cultural awareness are working to correct that.

Tough Convos wants to help you break through these barriers by developing a more inclusive organizational culture and shaping inclusive leaders with the right blend of leadership styles. We’re excited to create learning experiences or facilitate conversations at your workplace so don't hesitate to reach out. Call us at 1(858) 876-8176 today to learn more, or get in touch online to let us know how we can assist you in creating leadership opportunities for all.


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