Diversifying the boardroom: what can we learn from female leaders?


The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter, highlighting the need to close the gender pay gap that is still existent in modern society – and apparently will be for the next 200 years.

There are different factors behind the gap, one of them being a lack of women in senior roles. Research by Cranfield School of Management showed that the share of women in executive functions in the UK was only 10% in 2017.

There are multiple reasons behind this, as a CIPD study from 2016 suggests, including the increased likelihood of women to work part-time or take career breaks – most notably to start a family – which hampers them from following traditional routes to senior roles. The most pervasive obstacle for women, however, is unconscious bias, with discussions on leadership traditionally favouring stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits like dominance and assertiveness; traits that women supposedly lack.

Battling this gendered view of leadership is tough, with the CIPD stating that even when women do reach the top, they feel like they have to mimic ‘masculine’ behaviours to be successful. A shift in preferred leadership styles in recent years has, however, gone some way to changing these gender biases. Transformational leadership focuses on motivating and inspiring team members to perform to their best ability, so they can ultimately become leaders themselves. A good leader is therefore expected to possess traits like collaboration, empathy and emotional intelligence: characteristics stereotypically considered ‘feminine’.

A year-long study by Caliper, comparing men and women’s leadership skills, showed this shift to a more collaborative style very clearly. The test mainly looked at traits like flexibility, sociability and empathy, but also discussed persuasiveness and assertiveness. The results showed that women scored higher than men on all of these points.

So does this mean women are better leaders than men? Why did women score higher in all the areas?

While the answers might not be straightforward, the results do give an indication of the two factors influencing women’s success. They scored higher than men on factors such as willingness to take risks and persuasive motivation, giving an indication of the high levels of dedication and perseverance undoubtedly developed by a more challenging road to success. Their high scores on flexibility and sociability also show an ability and willingness to adapt, which again can be traced back to having to work harder to live up to norms and expectations.

Ultimately, it’s not about whether women are better leaders than men or vice versa, but about looking at leadership beyond gender stereotypes and understanding what can be learnt from one another. Efforts to diversify the boardroom are still greatly needed, which is why it’s important to continue emphasising the importance of women in leadership roles and to work hard on defeating outdated gender stereotypes on what it takes to be a leader not just on International Women’s Day but every other day of the year too.

Source: HN Global