The old French saying extolling the distinctions between male and female originated with French writer Anatole France. As the story goes, he was dining with an emancipated woman of the late 1th century, who had just declared that women and men had come so close in status and performance that there was ‘“virtually no difference” between them.
“Madame,” replied the Nobel Prize winner, “vive la difference!”
All kidding aside, it is our differences which can best instruct in many areas of life. Well-functioning teams know how useful varying skillsets, experiences, and approaches can be to the success of a project or business as a whole.
According to advice offered by business experts at Harvard Business Review and Entrepreneur magazine, that goes for gender, too.
Women in the U.S. hold about half of management and professional positions, but only 7.4 percent of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies, according to its 2020 listing (although that number does represent growth in recent years).
Matthew McCreight, senior partner at Schaffer Consulting, tackled this topic at a 2017 conference focused on women leaders. As reported in Entrepreneur, he was asked to speak about “what can women learn from effective male leaders.”
To prepare, McCreight interviewed 31 women in senior leadership roles. He found that there are indeed differences between how men and women lead. In short, he believes men and women can learn from each other, and from those differences.
Consider two stereotypes, McCreight said in Entrepreneur: That men are more aggressive, and women are better listeners.
McCreight found in his interviews that those considered the best male leaders instead show more empathy, a quality more often associated with female leaders. Many of the women interviewed also said the best male leaders don’t always insist on having their own way, are open to other opinions, and listen to their teams before making a decision.
The story of one woman illustrates the other stereotype — a hesitancy leftover from the old days of expected female silence. This manager spent years struggling with an 8 a.m. weekly meeting because of childcare issues. She was never assertive enough to ask, until a (male) CEO indicated it could be moved without causing any problem. He’d never offered; she’d never spoken up. A wasted struggle.
Men and women leaders, said McCreight, can learn from each other’s tendencies. His interviews led him to these general conclusions:
What women can learn from men
1. Power. Enjoy being the boss, and don’t be afraid to make decisions. Men are good at enjoying power. Some women can be almost embarrassed to admit they like to be in charge and to have power.
2. Speak up. Don’t wait to be asked. Volunteer to take the lead on assignments.
3. Empathy. The best male leaders, he says, don’t fit the stereotype. They emanate empathy.
4. Decide, and don’t look back. When the goal is delivery, a leader can spend a maximum of 30 percent of allocated project time thinking about it. The team needs 70 percent of the time to deliver. So make a decision, and just move forward.
5. Observe, but don’t discount your strengths. The best-run companies have teams with diverse approaches, ideas, and personal styles. You don’t have to be like everybody else.
6. Network. A lot. Go out of your way to engage with male leaders and ask for guidance on specific topics. Don’t be wishy-washy in what you want to know. Male and female leaders like to be asked for advice. It boosts feelings of power. Many men still don’t naturally reach out to females in business so, advises McCreight, women may need to take the lead.
Turning things around, an April 2020 article in Harvard Business Review listed seven lessons men can earn from women leaders. While there is still much public focus on women making leadership gains, the Harvard University-based management publication posits the misconception that women should emulate men to get there still pervades American business culture.
Yet research cited by HBR indicates the prevalence of male senior leaders is not a product of superior leadership talent. Large quantitative studies and meta-analyses conducted or reviewed at Harvard indicate that gender differences in overall leadership talent are nonexistent.
So because both men and women leaders have something to offer, HBR offered:
What men can learn from women
1. Don’t “lean in” without a reason. Bucking the trend pushing leaders to “lean-in” with assertiveness, boldness, or overconfidence, HBR suggests in men such qualities can manifest as self-promotion, taking credit for others’ achievements, and aggression. Instead, show competence over confidence, curiosity over boasting. Display empathy and praise team members and colleagues.
2. Know and own your limitations. Confidence is great, but self-awareness is better. Knowing our flaws or weaknesses is the first step to improving them, or if need be, filling the gaps more effectively. Although women are not as insecure as portrayed in some self-help literature and social media, studies do suggest they are generally less overconfident than men, HBR reports. Knowing where we need to focus more and how to be better prepared helps leaders increase competence and performance.
3. Motivate through transformation. Older studies from a 1990 meta-analysis indicate women are more likely to lead through inspiration and by transforming others’ attitudes or beliefs, aligning people with meaning and purpose (rather than a carrot-and-stick approach). Since transformational leadership has been linked to higher levels of team engagement, performance, and productivity (Steinmann 2018), it can be critical to improving leadership.
4. Put your team ahead of yourself. People who see leadership as a glorified career destination are too self-centered to foster wellbeing and potential in others. Nor is that going to motivate a team.
5. Don’t command; empathize. Throughout history, we have told women that they are too kind and caring to be leaders, but the irony is we’re finally discovering that’s at odds with reality. Twenty-first century culture demands that leaders establish an emotional connection with their followers. Humans crave validation, appreciation, and empathy — and tend to perform better when they get it.
6. Mentor. Female leaders in general have been shown more likely to coach, mentor, and develop those who report to them than are male counterparts (Gipson 2017). This means being less transactional and more strategic in their relationship with employees, and the openness to hire people who are better than themselves.
7. Be humble, don’t just say it. Of course not all women are humble, and times may be changing. But again studies so far indicate humility is more fundamentally a feminine trait (Sumra 2019). Humility helps leaders learn from their mistakes and experience, consider others’ perspectives, as well as encourage others to do the same. All leading to greater efficiencies.
Some of this may feel uncomfortable, suggests HBR. If so it’s a useful exercise to ask ourselves why. Perceptions and reactions can get in the way of effectiveness, as human as they may be. The best gender equality intervention is to focus on equality of talent and potential, but that only happens when we have more gender-equal leadership to enable men and women to learn different leadership approaches from one another.
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Sholeh Patrick, J.D., is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network and former small business legal adviser. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.