A Love Letter to Leading Ladies
Women are great leaders. Some might argue better than men, those ‘some’ perhaps unsurprisingly including me - especially in this day and age. Let me explain…
First I want to talk about why women are good leaders and I’ll get to the man-bashing later (it’s a joke…maybe). Research shows that women are more other-directed, emotionally intelligent and less confident (1). Now I know what you’re thinking, “how is not being confident a good thing” but I am not saying women don’t have confidence! What I am saying is women are less likely to be overconfident and overconfidence can be a dangerous thing. It’s pretty much the first thing you are taught in medicine; never overestimate yourself because overconfidence can kill. Okay maybe it’s the second thing, after “tell every person you meet immediately that you’re a medical student regardless of whether anyone actually asks”. No shade, but to the medics out there: you can’t tell me I’m wrong, can you? I digress. Research shows that 71% of men report thinking they are smarter than the average American whilst only 57% of women say the same (1). I’m sure it doesn’t take a maths whizz to know that 71% of men can’t be smarter than the average which shows a pretty big mismatch between male confidence and reality.
This links to my next point which is that women also assess risk differently and are more likely to make the ‘safe’ call. As exciting as taking a gamble can be, I think you’ll agree that gambling should be kept to casinos and not in leadership positions where you are gambling with people’s lives and livelihoods. And yet, men are more likely to take that risk. A famous 1994 study coined this as the ‘white male effect’ meaning white men perceive the risk of hazards as lower than women and people of colour did (1). The logic behind this is that “women, people of colour, the disabled wake up to risk everyday so they have to see it” (1). This means that women see, assess and behave differently to risks than men do. Women also tend to use a more democratic style of leadership, which I would argue is preferable to the typical male autocratic leadership style (3). No man or woman is an island, an approach that allows for greater participation of everyone in a team and not only the leader is a very good thing. Again, I use the example of medicine in which I have definitely seen a push towards democratic and away from autocratic styles of leadership.
Now onto the slightly more controversial task of justifying why I think women might actually be better leaders than men. Historically, the dominant leadership theory focused on the necessity for what we might say are typically ‘masculine’ stereotypes such as decisiveness and task-orientation - or as Cindy Gallop calls it, “getting shit done” (1) - however in recent times stereotypically ‘feminine’ leadership features have come to be recognised as equally important, such as cooperation and mentoring (3). What I’m saying is, we’re starting to see a shift in what people look for in their leaders and in this new light, women come out on top. That’s because most female leaders actually display both sides of the coin; ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ leadership qualities. In the fight to be accepted as leaders, women often adapt to better fit the traditional ‘mold’ of leadership with its ‘masculine’ qualities whilst still retaining those all-important ‘feminine’ qualities, making them ideal. Men, on the other hand, often have no incentive or need to take on those ‘feminine’ qualities as they are unchallenged as leaders and thus often only have ‘masculine’ leadership qualities. That’s a lot of quotation marks, solely because I do want to remind readers that these are very much stereotypes and on an individual basis there’s no reason why a man wouldn’t be perfectly capable at cooperating, for example. But the fact of the matter is that the changing attitudes in society about what makes a good leader is by on large not reflected in the workplace and these stereotypes are part of the reason why.
My argument isn’t actually for a matriarchy but I’m hoping at this point you can see why a gender-diverse panel of leaders would be preferable to the current leadership dynamic. I’ve indicated there’s a gender gap in leadership a few times now, to illustrate let me use the example of healthcare. The WHO have said that “global health is delivered by women and led by men” (4). Whilst 70% of jobs in healthcare are held by women, an abysmal 25% of leadership roles within healthcare are held by women (4). And why?! The research suggests that gender-diverse leadership, as well as being fairer would also produce better outcomes! In retail, a gender-diverse business has a 14% higher average revenue compared with a less-diverse one, and in hospitality profits are 19% higher in gender-diverse businesses than in not (5).
There are a few reasons for this observed difference, to start it is due to men and women having different viewpoints, ideas and market insights, therefore having more representative leadership enables better problem solving (5). Another important one is that the addition of women into leadership means agendas can be expanded, in the case of businesses I mean a more diverse customer base is created. In health, this means that issues that have impacts on women are more likely to be prioritised by women. That’s important because global gender inequity means that most social issues (at least the ones we look at in global health for definite) actually do impact women worse than men. The obvious example for female health-related issues would be sexual and reproductive health, which is massively important in terms of giving women agency and opportunity. But looking further afield, to name just one example, what about poverty? Women are more vulnerable to poverty than men and often have less scope to get out of it too. So agenda setting is really important and consistently applying a gendered lense to health would be ideal. Finally, having more women in leadership would attract and retain more female workers in all sectors (5). It should come as little surprise that having unequal opportunities reduce career satisfaction, is demoralising and leads to poor retention of talented women in the workplace (4).
To finish my little love letter to female leadership I want to give the example of Covid-19. This pandemic has hit every country hard, but research shows that outcomes in terms of the number of deaths were “systematically better in countries led by women” (6). There are a couple reasons for this, first of all female leaders shut down their countries faster than male leaders did when the pandemic broke out. The women-led countries of Germany, New Zealand, Iceland and Finland all shut down significantly sooner than other countries when considering how many deaths they had before deciding to shut down (6). Let’s apply what we’ve already talked about. Maybe female leaders shut down their countries quicker because they assessed the risk of COVID to be greater than their male counterparts did. The study I refer to highlights the nuance between which risks women and men are willing to take. Of course, early lockdown hurts economies but it also saves lives, suggesting women were less willing to take a risk with lives but more willing to risk their economy (6). What we can all agree on is that early lockdown shows decisiveness, a supposedly ‘masculine’ quality that our own male Prime Minister lacked in spades. The second reason female-led countries might have experienced fewer deaths despite having similar numbers of cases at the point of lockdown could be that female-led countries had better policies and compliance (6). The improved compliance might reflect that female countries are “more ‘modern’ and ‘equitable’ and therefore perform better during crises” (6).
Evidently, women are brilliant leaders and need to be given the opportunity to prove that. Unfortunately, there remains a multitude of barriers to women to getting in and staying in positions of power and there’s much to be done within our society to change that. But hey, reading and dare I say… sharing?… this is a start.
1. Anderson C. Why Do Women Make Such Good Leaders During COVID-19?. Forbes [Internet]. 2020;. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/camianderson1/2020/04/19/why-do-women-make-such-good-leaders-during-covid-19/?sh=a96e64142fc7
2. The New Yorker. "Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence." [Internet]. Available from: https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a21444
3. Eagly A, Carli L. The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence. The Leadership Quarterly. 2003;14(6):807-834.
4. WHO. Consultation on Policy Brief on Gender, Equity and Leadership in the Global Health and Social Workforce. 2020.
5. Badal S. The Business Benefits of Gender Diversity. Gallup [Internet]. 2014;. Available from: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236543/business-benefits-gender-diversity.aspx
6. Garikipati S, Kambhampati U. Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?. SSRN Electronic Journal. 2020;.