Women Score Higher on Leadership Metrics, So Why Do We Prefer Male Bosses?
December 18, 2014 | Focus on Women
By Lisa Wirthman
The higher women climb up the career ladder, the bigger the gender gap grows. Women still hold just 5 percent of CEO positions and 17 percent of board seats, according to research group Catalyst. But this may not be the fault of leadership: One of the biggest obstacles to narrowing the gender gap for female leaders may be the employees who work for them.
According to a recent Gallup poll, employees of both genders prefer male bosses to female bosses. Among the 60 percent of employees who have a preference either way, women (40 percent) actually are more likely to prefer a male boss than men (29 percent).
Yet research from leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman shows that women are actually more effective leaders than men, scoring higher on 12 of 16 leadership attributes, according to Robert Sherwin, chief operating officer at Zenger Folkman.
So why don’t we like them more?
Misguided perceptions and stereotypes about female leaders at all levels of the workplace may be playing a role in employees’ preferences over who’s the boss.
“At the heart of our research is this incorrect belief that women are less-effective leaders,” said Sherwin. “These traditional beliefs and assumptions are definitely getting in the way of women advancing in workplace.”
“One assumption about female leaders is that they are better nurturers—and they are,” said Sherwin. Women scored higher than men on leadership traits such as developing others, building relationships and collaboration.
“But women also scored higher on leadership traits often attributed to men, such as taking initiative, driving results and being a champion for change,” he said. In short, women are exceptionally well-rounded leaders.
“It’s not a trade-off that you have to be either nurturing or hard-driving. You can be both of those at the same time,” he said.
Another reason for the disconnect between the effectiveness of female leaders and the preference for male bosses simply may be that few employees actually know what it’s like to work for a woman.
One of the few subgroups in Gallup’s poll that did not tilt toward a male leader was the 30 percent of employees who work for a female boss. Those employees were equally split in their preferences—perhaps showing that gender equality among leaders creates gender equality among workers as well.
Zenger Folkman’s separate research on the likability of leaders seems to confirm the anomaly. Employees who worked for female bosses were quite positive about their leadership. “Not only are women perceived as more effective leaders, they’re actually liked more,” said Sherwin. “That likability increases as women take on more senior-level positions,” he added.
But for workers to see the benefits of working for a female boss firsthand, the number of women leaders must increase. “One way to start changing the ratio is to have more women serve as role models,” he suggested. “If I’m a woman in an organization and I look up and see that there are hardly any people like me, it’s a pretty strong signal that I’ve got a tough fight ahead,” Sherwin said.
Female role models help inspire women who are aspiring to leadership positions. But they also help educate men who already are in the executive suite about the strength of female leaders and the ways they can improve a company’s performance and results.
“It’s important that men see that women are just as effective as or maybe even more effective than they are, and that maybe there are some things they can learn,” Sherwin said.
The increased adoption of family-friendly workplace polices such as paid maternity and paternity leave also could help drive the growth of female leaders. “I think these policies will have a huge impact because they will level the playing field,” he added. Currently the United States is the only developed nation that does not provide paid maternity leave for women.
As for young women hoping to become the next generation of leaders, Sherwin offers the same advice he would give to his own seven granddaughters. “If being a leader is what you want, you should do all the things you can to go after it, and don’t let yourself be pigeonholed,” he said. “This is all your choice. You just need to be who you are.”
Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy, and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.