2021 Is a Tipping Point for Female Leaders
A pedestrian wearing a protective mask passes a mural of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris painted by artist Shawn Perkins in Washington. (Photographer: Eric Lee/Bloomberg)

2021 Is a Tipping Point for Female Leaders

Will 2021 be the year that leadership becomes feminine?

As the year begins, there are more top female leaders than ever before. In the U.S., about a quarter of the legislature is female. Kamala Harris just became the first woman Vice President. Half of the Biden-Harris administration’s cabinet is female — another first. Women leaders are making gains in business as well. For the first time in history, all S&P 500 firms have at least one female board member. The number of women CEOs in the S&P 500 hit an all-time high (though still only 7.8%) at the end of 2020.

For decades, even centuries, we operated under a stereotype that researchers called “think manager, think male.” Both men and leaders are expected to be confident, assertive and independent. Women are expected to be relational, inclusive and communal — traits more associated with motherhood than leadership. But that may be finally changing. The most recent evidence suggests that women are now perceived to be equally or more effective leaders than men.

The pandemic accelerated questions about whether a “female leadership style” is more effective than the traditionally autocratic male style. When crisis hits, research shows that the preference for command-and-control leadership wanes and a need for relational leadership increases. And indeed, several countries led by men have bungled the public health effort, while female-led countries like New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Taiwan have fared better.

To be clear, I’m not saying that women are innately more communal. It’s that gender expectations have required women to be more empathetic in their approach to leadership. It usually doesn’t work for women to adopt a “male” style; these women are usually seen as overly abrasive.

At the same time, it’s hard for women with a communal style to be seen as leadership material, because we often have a mental image of a leader as someone who takes charge. This has historically created a double-bind for women.

But what if relational leadership became the new standard? There would likely be more female leaders. And I’d argue that leaders, regardless of their gender, who used a relational style would get better results.

The preference for relational leadership has been growing for years. Even the U.S. Army, not known for being particularly empathetic, recently announced a new plan to “put people first.” Gen. James McConville, the 40th Chief of Staff of the Army, explained in a statement that, “When we take care of our people and treat each other with dignity and respect, we will have a much stronger, and more committed Army.”

So what has changed? Stereotypes haven’t — in fact, research shows that stereotypes of women as relational have only increased between 1946 and 2018. The reality is that leadership, itself, is changing.

The change is that a smaller and smaller percentage of people prefer top-down leaders. That means stereotypes of leaders have become less “take charge” and more “take care.” A meta-analysis on the topic concluded that leadership stereotypes now include more “feminine relational qualities, such as sensitivity, warmth, and understanding.”

Maybe the ever-mounting examples of how hyper-masculine leadership can go wrong precipitated the shift. Seeing so many toxic male leaders brought down by the #MeToo movement caused some to feel that this style was hopelessly flawed.

Trump’s chest-thumping approach to beating the pandemic did not restore confidence. Urging people to not be afraid of Covid was very macho; it was not very effective.

Woman-led countries have had fewer Covid-related deaths, a smaller number of days with confirmed deaths, and a lower peak in daily deaths. (Another study showed similar trends, but not statistical significance). Within the U.S., research further showed that states with female governors had fewer Covid-related deaths than states with male governors.

What was the difference? Using a computer program to qualitatively analyze the content of 251 briefings between April 1, 2020 and May 5, 2020 the authors found that women showed greater empathy and support for followers’ welfare. When people feel that leaders are taking care of them, they become more willing to comply with requests to social distance and wear masks. It is basically the norm of reciprocity.  

A qualitative study in press at the journal BMJ Global Health found similar themes among female heads of countries. An analysis of 122 speeches made by heads of governments across the globe showed that male leaders used more war analogies and fear-based tactics in talking about the virus. In contrast, female leaders focused on people — families, children and vulnerable groups — with a message of compassion and social cohesion. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “These are not just abstract numbers in statistics, but this is about a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner — this is about people.”

Female leaders in the private sector have also gotten better ratings during the pandemic. One study examined more than 800 employees’ preferences for male and female leaders between March and June of 2020. Employees rated female leaders more positively than male leaders and those with female leaders reported greater levels of engagement. To get at the cause of the difference, the researchers also asked employees which leadership competencies were particularly important to them during this time. The highly important skills were all relational: “inspires and motivates,” “communicates powerfully,” “collaboration/teamwork” and “relationship building.” Female leaders outperformed their male counterparts on all of them.

And it was not only female employees who wanted more relational leadership. For far too long, men have suffered in the workplace because of the belief that they need to be able to “man up” and just “take it” when their leaders behave abusively. As a result, men suffer higher levels of depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and even suicide. 

And yet there is no reason that men can’t adopt a more relational leadership style. Take a look at President Joe Biden — he oozes empathy when he talks about the pandemic.

Leaders who have a more take-charge style just need to do one thing: Put. People. First. Lean into your empathy, sensitivity, warmth and understanding. Build relationships, cohesion, inclusion and collaboration.

Organizations should also adapt to increasing preferences for relational leadership. Make people your top priority, and put inclusion in your vision, mission and values. Second, reconsider your leadership competency models. Replace competencies that reward take-charge leadership (“command presence,” “drives for results,” “takes control”) with competencies that are more relational (“earns respect,” “inspires high performance,” “works collaboratively to get the job done”). Third, remember that what’s rewarded is remembered. Leaders who get the job done by leaving a trail of bruised bodies still often get rewarded even though their direct reports suffer. This creates lower engagement and higher turnover, and encourages ambitious employees to emulate the wrecking-ball approach. Consider rewarding leaders who are able to develop and retain people, create inclusive teams and bolster engagement.

The “think manager, think male” stereotype no longer stands alone. As 2021 unfolds, we can add a new one: “Think leader, think lady.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stefanie K. Johnson is an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Leeds School of Business and academic director of its center for leadership. She is the author of "Inclusify: Harnessing the Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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