24th November 2015 Written by Christina Pond

Image: Women can offer the very best in leadership.

When it comes to successful leadership, gender is a secondary consideration says Christina Pond, Executive Director of Core Contracts and Policy for Skills for Health.

Anyone who has witnessed effective leadership will tell you it’s a blend of personal qualities and specific skills - whatever the gender of the leader.

But it’s the consideration of these personal qualities that gives rise to the ongoing debate of gender differences in leadership styles.

The question is, if such differences exist, do they offer a leadership style which is more or less effective. And it’s also worth asking how each style operates within different industries or contexts.

Equally contentious is the issue of whether these differences - be they perceived or actual - present barriers to women aspiring to leadership roles in the workplace.

Conflicting theories

Research into these questions has led to conflicting theories about male versus female leadership attributes, and the value and impact of each.

These supposed gender differences are held by some as observable in behaviours both personal and professional.

Broadly speaking, research suggests men are more confident, more optimistic and tend to react to situations by taking action. For their part, women tend to react with feeling, display greater social sensitivity and, although women are generally more risk averse, will take greater risks than men in social situations.

Some studies have reported neurological differences between men and women that underlie these behaviours. For example, in the nature and intensity of the emotional response to different situations, particularly negative ones (Stevens & Hamann 2012).

Such findings suggest we cannot ignore differences which exist at a biological level. However, these will undoubtedly be modified by an individual’s experience and circumstance.

Leadership styles

If we acknowledge these differences exist, what does this mean for the leadership style used and the impact of these behaviours on the organisation and its people.

McKinsey (2009) found that women’s styles could be defined as people-based. This sees the woman acting as a role model providing clear expectations and rewards, and encouraging participative decision-making.

Eagly et al in two separate studies also showed that women adopt more democratic participative styles, and are more transformational in their approach.

Zenger Folkman (2012) found that women leaders are rated as more competent when it comes to taking initiative, practising self-development, and driving for results.

There is no doubt that new models of leadership will require a focus on trust, diversity and community building. They will represent a move away from the traditional individualistic, hierarchical and towards the collaborative, participative, and distributed styles.

The barriers

The behaviours identified as being more prevalent in female leaders, as have been cited in these studies, are amongst those which must be demanded of leaders if they are to be effective.

So it’s clear that, whilst, woman have the attributes to thrive as leaders, many still report barriers to achieving leadership roles.

Yuki (2002) found no difference in leadership ability between genders, which leads to the conclusion that those barriers are the result of other factors, whether perceptual or actual

Perceptual barriers can be created by a lack of confidence, which may manifest in claiming authority, or behaviour in negotiations, expectations and entitlement.

In addition, a number of actual barriers have been identified, including gender bias, which in turn can result in a leadership identity that is constructed as ‘male’.

Other blockers can include a lack of appropriate role models, lack of linear career paths, particularly due to family commitments, and lesser access to networks, mentors and sponsors.

The future

There is now a much greater understanding of these barriers and how they might be overcome, particularly through innovative approaches to leadership development.

A new understanding of how leadership is changing will create greater opportunities for individuals, whatever their gender, to apply their leadership capabilities when they are needed most.

Modern workforces are now looking for leadership models that are cyclical and flexible rather than hierarchical and structured.

Ultimately, leadership behaviours and our expectations of leaders need to be reframed in terms of the leadership relationship, leadership practices and organisational interventions.

With this rethinking of what we mean by ‘leadership’ comes a greater opportunity for women to exercise their unique talents to produce a shared sense of professional direction and purpose.

Skills for Health, in partnership with the National Skills Academy for Health, delivers Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) accredited courses.

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