Women are better leaders and managers than men, and they will soon begin to forge ahead in business. This, it seems, is not just a fantasy of a few determined feminists, but a growing belief among top managers, academics and futurologists.

“I believe that women’s advancement is virtually unstoppable. Women will be the ones running the world in 100 years’ time,” predicts Juan Villalonga, chief executive of Spanish company Telefonica, in Shere Hite’s new book, Sex and Business.1 He is not the only one to have taken this view. David Mercer, of the Open University’s Future Observatory, claims that the findings of its research with the Strategic Planning Society in around 2,000 organisations indicates that women will start to take over from men as leaders within the next 30 years.2 The reason, he says, is that they are better qualified for work in the information society.

“We believe we can detect a trend: women are already catching up. The leaders in the area of personal empowerment are clearly women,” Mercer says. “The knowledge society builds on work they have traditionally been doing – it does not require the use of pickaxes. In particular, women come out of education at every level better qualified than their male counterparts.”

Hite’s research among senior (male) executives points to their increasing recognition of women’s superior performance and greater commitment to the organisation. Women were praised and admired by chief executives for their relative indifference to status symbols and office politics, their “different” and innovative ways of thinking, their service industry savvy, their higher intellectual achievements and greater productivity, as well as their more stereotypically appreciated soft skills, such as communication and networking.

On the other hand, they were criticised for taking time off work to have children, not fighting enough for power in an organisation, not making themselves visible, disliking competition and lacking depth of experience.

Since the 1970s it has been well documented that women’s management styles are different from men’s. Studies in both the UK and the US, such as Judy Rosener’s 1990 research, have shown that women consistently score higher on “transformational” leadership – that is, motivational and supportive styles.3 On the other hand, men score higher on “transactional” styles – that is, the more traditional command-and-control methods – and on laissez-faire styles.

“There’s ample evidence to show that women have a natural disposition to manage in a different way,” says Dianah Worman, IPD adviser, equal opportunities. “It doesn’t mean that all women work this way and men don’t, or that men can’t learn it.”

Three-quarters of the chief executives questioned by Hite said that women scored better in tests than men, and 90 per cent said that women should be promoted to management positions.

Yet the statistics tell another story. According to UK figures for 1998, 18 per cent of all managers – and only 3.6 per cent of directors – were women. Rather than increasing, as it had been since the 1970s, the number of female directors actually declined between 1997 and 1998.

So why is the glass ceiling still in place? New research from Cranfield School of Management’s Centre for Developing Women Business Leaders (see panel, below), blames informal organisational culture – a culture still clinging to traditional notions of male and female roles. This, they say, perpetuates the status quo and fails to recognise women’s abilities. Whatever formal processes firms may have for succession planning, assessment and promotion, the “comfort fit” with informal culture is more important than most of them think. And, because it is unrecognised, it is rarely addressed.

The Cranfield studies show that the same holds true for demonstrations of commitment. Creating the right impression is a key factor in this. Women aren’t getting themselves noticed by the right people, so they need to blow their own trumpets more, according to the researchers (see panel, below).

Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, professor of leadership at the University of Leeds, believes that more formal HR practices are at fault. She says that 360-degree feedback assessment averages are better performance predictors than the results of assessment centres. She also criticises typical appraisals that involve feedback from superiors and not staff.

Alimo-Metcalfe argues that most leadership development instruments are based on definitions of leadership given by men. This biases the results for women and leads to a lack of definitions, in terms of competencies, for the softer skills that businesses say they now need (see “Soft skills and hard questions”, PM, 29 May 1997).

Her latest research, as yet unpublished, tries to redress the balance. It outlines a new 360-degree feedback instrument based on definitions of transformational leadership qualities drawn from equal numbers of men and women, and tested – again with equal gender balance – in 400 public-sector organisations. The study identifies 12 key factors of transformational leadership, the most important being: having genuine concern for others; having political sensitivity; being decisive, determined and self-confident; having integrity; empowering, delegating and developing others; networking, promoting and communicating; being accessible; clarifying boundaries and involving others in decisions; and fostering critical and strategic thinking.

But ignoring the potential of women can have more strategic consequences for organisations. It has been recognised, of course, that good leadership requires both transformational and transactional skills, and that the different styles are appropriate in different contexts. But more recent US research from Janet Irwin and Michael Perrault has shown that women managers tend to perform better in both the transformational and the transactional aspects of leadership.4

There are also indications that the transactional style of leadership is failing companies. US research by Richard Hagberg in Fortune magazine last year, based on personality tests on chief executives and reviews by their colleagues, showed that those who failed were often impatient, manipulative, dominating, self-important and critical of others. These executives, labelled “Rambos in pinstripes”, created a survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere, neglected teamwork and lacked the ability to develop talent in others.5

There is another cost, according to Alimo-Metcalfe. “I get a sense that organisations have been so concerned about survival that they have focused on output and indicators of performance, and done so at the expense of individuals,” she says.

With work-related stress costing the UK £6.4 billion a year – the Health and Safety Executive estimates that 60 per cent of work absence is stress-related – Alimo-Metcalfe thinks we are now seeing the increased financial impact of competitiveness. “Stress, as we know, is caused by environmental factors – the style of one’s boss is one of the major sources. People who have managers who have a more transformational style are the ones who have high morale and are more effective.”

But competitive demands have led employers to neglect the transformational aspects of management. “People are getting more transactional under pressure instead of giving staff more freedom,” Alimo-Metcalfe says. “Businesses are not appointing people with the right qualities: sensitivity, being aware of stress and the effects of one’s own personal style on others. A transformational style is most appropriate at times of great pressure, or you will not achieve high performance over a long period. People are now saying resoundingly that it is the most important factor about their leaders.

“We’ve got to change the way we do things. It’s causing incalculable damage to people and producing no creative thinking,” she adds. “I wish I were a man saying this, but I’m speaking as an academic. It’s madness to ignore it.”

1 Shere Hite, Sex and Business, FT/Prentice Hall, 1999 (reviewed on page 49).
2 David Mercer, Future Revolutions, Orion, 1999.
3 Judy Rosener, “Ways women lead”, Harvard Business Review, 1990.
4 Janet Irwin and Michael Perrault, Gender Differences at Work, Advanced Teamware Inc, 1996.
5 Linda Grant and Richard Hagberg, “Rambos in pinstripes: why so many CEOs are lousy leaders”, Fortune, June 1999.

Female intuition
PM asked a group of leading businesswomen about the differences in leadership styles between the sexes

Val Hammond
Chief executive, Roffey Park Management Institute.
“The fact that there are more women around means there is a greater variety of styles, and women don’t feel they have to be like men to achieve. That also gives men permission to be more varied as well – there is more diversity in the way people manage.”

Ann Minto
HR director, Smiths Industries.
“I think that women are more collegiate, more team-orientated. But there’s a change towards this team style for both men and women. The best leaders are those who are respected because they have vision and a goal they can get people to buy into.

“Sometimes women are a little timid to take on a different challenge and push forward. They should be more realistic about their own abilities and what they have to offer.”

Shirley Conran
Author and chair of Mothers in Management.
“Women are more democratic and think automatically in terms of the group. They don’t have the ‘willy problem’ – some people would call it an ego problem, but it’s not, it’s a willy problem. For example, men say: ‘I don’t like women in the workforce – they threaten my identity, so I’ll sulk. That’ll show them.’”

Lesley James
Former HR director, Tesco.
“Great charismatic leaders, whether men or women, have an eye for understanding the people issues. Ambitious, energetic managers of either sex know that they have to go the extra mile to stand out.

“I think women are good at encouraging people to change – eyeballing them and saying ‘you have got to change because the business has got to change’. And I think women can be inspirational.

“Being a woman has helped me enormously in my career. In my first job, at a male-dominated copper tube manufacturing plant, there weren’t any women who wanted to get involved in the business and understand the targets and the HR role. My interest in the business was a surprise to them. And the first time that I visited a shopfloor in Tesco they were stunned that I’d be interested.

“Being a woman can work to your advantage. And success breeds success. When the chair of Tesco put me on the board in 1995, he said he’d been looking for years for a woman who was good enough.”

Stephanie Monk
Group HR director, the Granada Group.
“Women spend more time thinking about influencing and communicating as part of their repertoire of skills.

“I think it is hugely important that women demonstrate visible leadership, make things happen, focus on strategic issues and are prepared to win. But I think they should bring their own strengths, rather than trying to be a pale imitation of what is already there. Otherwise, you would get no new thinking.

“Companies will need to think in future about how they will engage and enthuse women, particularly to aspire to more senior roles. Women now often choose to opt out because organisations are too unsympathetic.”

Beating the men at their own game
According to research by Val Singh at Cranfield’s Centre for Developing Women Business Leaders, women don’t make themselves visible enough in organisations. So what do men do that women should do more of?

•ingratiation – building relationships with supervisors;
•“window-dressing” yourself in terms of competence;
•exaggerating your credit for something in excess of your actual contribution;
•using keen, ready and attentive body language;
•having the appropriate demeanour for the next management level;
•adopting “organisational citizenship” behaviour – conscientiousness, courtesy, compliance and altruism;
•acting to repair image damage;
•volunteering for extra tasks (especially with your boss).

The 1999 Cranfield studies found that:
•more than half of top and middle female managers used impression management techniques;
•more women (53 per cent) than men (38 per cent) admitted that they used impression management, but women said that men used it more than women;
•a quarter of women, compared with 10 per cent of men, said they wouldn’t try to impress;
•both women and men said that they noticed when others used impression management, and tried to learn from them.

A gender hidden
What is holding women back from reaching the top jobs? Sue Vinnicombe and Hilary Harris suggest that the strength of informal organisational culture is one of the biggest barriers

The balance of the sexes in management can still be summed up by the phrase “think manager, think male”, just as it was in the 1970s.

One early US study, “The relationship between sex-role stereotypes and requisite management characteristics”, (V Schein, 1973) asked male managers to characterise “women in general”, “men in general” and “successful managers”. Unsurprisingly, successful managers were overwhelmingly identified with exclusively male traits.

In later research, male managers rated themselves higher than female managers on individualistic traits – that is, “hard” skills such as competitiveness and decision-making. Female managers rated themselves higher than male managers on relational traits – that is, “soft” skills such as empathy and listening.

But, strikingly, both sexes continue see top management as having almost entirely individualistic traits and positively lacking in relational traits.

Why do managers still view desirable top management traits as predominantly male, particularly when there is convincing evidence to support the adoption of more feminine styles leadership? The answer, according to research conducted by the Centre for Developing Women Business Leaders at Cranfield School of Management, lies in the power of the “informal” organisation.

We define the informal organisation as “the way we actually do things” as opposed to “the way we say we do things”. Hidden attitudes and stereotyping underpin informal ideas of acceptable management roles for men and women. This can influence both promotion decisions and perceptions of career success and commitment. In essence, it is about “comfort fit”, rather than an objective assessment of skills.

We have been carrying out a portfolio of research on the influence of the informal organisation on women’s chances of becoming senior managers. The findings of three of the studies are outlined below.

The existence of informal processes of selection – for example, for international postings – is one aspect of organisational culture that seems to weigh against women. In theory, women should be at an advantage when it comes to working internationally, given the focus on interpersonal skills in the now well-established list of criteria for effective international managers. Yet women represent between 2 and 15 per cent of the expat manager population.

We surveyed 100 UK-based international firms and then interviewed international HR managers from nine of them. Among these firms there was a predominance of “closed, informal” systems for selection and promotion. This meant that candidates were nominated without their knowledge and appointments were agreed after informal discussions between central personnel and line managers. Even where there were formal assessment systems, managers often worked round them, preferring simply to “talk about” potential candidates they knew personally. There was little acknowledgement of the importance of specific soft skills. One HR manager commented: “In practice, what is written in the performance appraisal is less important than general reputation.”

In contrast, one non-governmental aid organisation had an “open, formal” system of appointments, with vacancies advertised and selection made against formalised criteria. These criteria placed great emphasis on people skills. As a result, almost half the organisation’s expats were women, despite operating in highly volatile and inhospitable areas.

Definitions of success are different for men and women. The informally accepted definition of success in an organisation tends more closely to match the one held by men. This often results in women being perceived as less ambitious.

We interviewed 36 male and female managers in a major international service organisation. All of the women defined success in terms of achievement, personal recognition or influence, rather than “material” career success. The content of their jobs was more important to them than their grade.

Most of the men, on the other hand, felt that their position in the hierarchy was a measure of their career success, either through status or influence. The strongest differences between men and women were in external material criteria such as position and pay. While not irrelevant to women, these factors were never central to their descriptions of career success. But men saw these as central and indispensable markers of success, related to the status they craved.

Men described hierarchical positions as targets for which they were aiming. Women, on the other hand, talked about progression in terms of meeting sets of challenges. They did not have the same survival-of-the-fittest mentality as men. Women also thought of career success as only one part of what they wanted to achieve in their lives.

Balance was often described as part of their definition of success. While some of the men wanted balance, life success for them was in essence driven by career success.

Female managers are often reported as being less committed than their male counterparts. Again, informal organisational culture and a predominance of men in senior management tends to favour male definitions of commitment.

We interviewed male and female managers in three major engineering companies in the UK and Sweden to find out their definitions of commitment. The most common were active behaviours such as task delivery, “putting yourself out”, involvement and quality.

While, overall, men’s definitions of commitment were closer to top managers’ definitions, top women’s meanings were also similar to those of top men. They shared the concepts of being proactive, ready for a challenge, creative and business-aware.

Women also defined commitment more in terms of “good citizenship”, while men tended to talk about it in ways that benefited themselves as well as the organisation. Men and women also used different strategies to convey commitment. Men are more likely to work late, while more women may have childcare commitments. Men tended to push more for career development and to talk more loudly about their work, and to talk of their team’s work as if it were solely their own achievement.

Previous research has shown that women often need to spell out to their managers that they want challenging assignments, or it will be assumed that they are not interested. In essence, women’s commitment is less visible than men’s.

What these three studies have in common is that they reveal the subtle, yet persuasive, ways by which women managers are overlooked in organisations.

Sue Vinnicombe is director of the Centre for Developing Women Business Leaders at Cranfield School of Management. Hilary Harris is lecturer in international HR management at Cranfield.

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  • There is a saying that 'women are born managers, but men are born to be managed'.