When we think about women in leadership, we tend to think of a distinct leadership style made up of specific skills. For example, we typically think that female leaders are great listeners, while male leaders are better at giving instructions. But in reality, leadership exists on a spectrum -- there are masculine and feminine ways in which each leadership trait manifests.
What does that mean exactly? And what does it mean for leaders? Here’s a closer look at the leadership spectrum, and what it means for women in leadership.
What does the leadership spectrum look like?
Research conducted by our company, Skyline Group International, Inc., and the Organizational Intelligence Institute found that both men and women agreed there is a significant and recognizable gender continuum on 27 of the 28 competencies included in the study.
Take listening, for example. While we typically see listening as a female skill, it has a masculine and feminine expression -- both men and women have listening skills, they’re just different. Female listeners tend to listen for emotional context and connection. They try to sympathize with the emotions people express and try to console or support the speaker. On the other end of the spectrum, the masculine expression is to listen for content and clarity. Male listeners are more focused on the meaning of what people say so they can summarize the speaker’s main points.
So while the typical leadership style between men and women may differ, they still use the same traits and skills, just in different ways. Or at times, we find them using the opposite expression of their gender.
What does this mean for women in leadership?
While masculine and feminine expressions of leadership qualities are different, one isn’t necessarily better than the other. Both expressions are needed in different situations and with different people to be an effective leader. In fact, our survey participants rated more than 70 percent of leadership competencies, both masculine and feminine expressions, as equally effective.
Yet, women are often criticized for acting too masculine or too feminine. Our research found a significantly lower perception of effectiveness when women express the masculine behavior in 57 percent of the 28 leadership competencies studied. In comparison, men were perceived significantly poorer when utilizing the feminine approach in 39 percent of competencies.
In addition, female peers may be the most critical of women who adopt masculine traits. For 43 percent of the competencies where women express the masculine version of the trait, only women rated women as less effective compared to men expressing the masculine version of the trait. Furthermore, we also see for 25 percent of the competencies women rated other women worse did when women express the masculine compared to feminine expression of a competency.
There’s a clear bias here. And, while it’s unfair, it highlights the need for balance in leadership. Leaders shouldn’t be all masculine or all feminine -- they need to change their approach depending on who they’re working with and the needs of the situation.
How do leaders become more balanced?
So what should women in leadership do? How do they become more effective? When is the right time to express masculine or feminine leadership traits?
In simple terms, women in leadership positions who typically express more masculine behaviors can be more successful if they adopt some feminine expressions, especially with other women. At the same time, those who tend to express feminine behaviors can become more masculine when they need to be.
What does that look like in real life? Here are a few examples of situations to adopt masculine or feminine expressions of leadership:
The best time to use feminine expressions
According to our research, men and women agree that the feminine expression of emotional control -- acknowledging emotions and appropriately expressing them -- is more than 40 percent more effective than the masculine version -- ignoring emotions and holding them in.
Women have an advantage here and can use their natural instincts to express their emotions. For those who tend to keep their emotions bottled up, recognizing their importance and acknowledging them can help them become more effective leaders. Especially when conflicts arise, express emotions appropriately and encourage employees to do the same. Allow them to vent a little, talk it out, and then find a solution.
The best time to use masculine expressions
Although women in leadership can be judged harshly by their female peers for adopting masculine expressions, they should do so when they want to inspire employees towards a vision.
The masculine expression of inspirational vision was rated as significantly more effective than the feminine expression. This suggests women should adopt a more energetic and excitement-driven approach to communicating vision over trying to connect using emotion and individual conversations to inspire.
When starting a new project, working toward challenging goals, or going after new clients, don’t be afraid to ramp up the whole team. Lead with excitement to get employees on board and inspired by the company vision and what is possible in the world.
While women tend to face more criticism than men when it comes to their leadership style, everyone -- regardless of gender -- needs to adapt their strategies to their audience and the situation. This requires leaders to be more balanced and to develop and use both the masculine and feminine expressions of a competency, depending on what is needed, instead of relying on one default set of behaviors.
Is your leadership style more masculine or feminine? How can you be more balanced?
Image from kurhan/Shutterstock.