How to Tap the Gender Competitive Advantage

There’s a gender competitive advantage to tap because there is a gender leadership gap. The fact that a gender leadership gap persists in companies, given that the workforce is nearly half men and women (http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-sp-500-companies), is more unfortunate than it is unfair. It is unfortunate because there are several data points showing that the presence of women in organizational leadership correlates with high performance (see http://fortune.com/2015/03/03/ , http://www.ddiworld.com/pdf, and http://money.cnn.com/2016/04/01/). In fact, there are currently two products for investors focused on companies with women leadership (Barclays Women in Leadership Exchange Traded Note and SPDR SSGA Gender Diversity Index Exchange Traded Funds). There is also growing research to suggest that the gender leadership gap is more likely due to biology than to the unfair treatment of women.

There’s a gender competitive advantage to tap because there is a gender leadership gap.

Valerie Patrick

While the biological differences between the sexes outside the body can be seen, the biological differences between the sexes inside the body can’t be seen. For example, scientists have discovered that a man’s liver processes a sleep agent known as zolpidem (tradename Ambien) differently than a woman’s liver processes that same agent (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/article). The conclusion of the study was that a different dosage needs to be prescribed for women than for men.

In just the last 10 years, biological differences between the sexes have also been found in the brain. There are now known structural, functional, biochemical, and developmental differences between male and female brains (Zaidi, Z.F.; “Gender Differences in Human Brain: A Review,” The Open Anatomy Journal, 2010, 2, p. 37-55; and Andreano, J.M.; and Cahill, L.; “Sex Influences on the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory,” Learning and Memory, 2009, 16, p. 248-266). While neuroscientists are just starting to study how these brain differences impact brain processing, one thing is certain: the brain governs how we think and behave. If our brains are different, then we are going to think and behave differently.

Male Female Brain

Based on the testimonies of accomplished leaders and the findings of behavioral scientists, Fulcrum Connection LLC has identified eight differences in leadership behavior between men and women. Half of these leadership behaviors come more naturally to men than to women on average and the other half come more naturally to women than to men on average.

Let’s start with the four leadership behaviors that come more naturally to men than to women on average. The first leadership behavior is power motivation. Behavioral research shows that men have more power motivation then women on average and that power motivation correlates with attaining executive positions in organizations (Schuh et al; “Gender Differences in Leadership Role Occupancy: The Mediating Role of Power Motivation,” Journal of Business Ethics, 2014, 120, p. 363-379.). The second leadership behavior is risk-taking, especially, financial risk-taking. Research shows that while men tend to make more risky financial decisions then women, this difference in risk can be largely explained by differences in knowledge about finances (Dwyer, P.D.; Gilkeson, J.H.; and List, J.A.; “Gender Differences in Revealed Risk-Taking: Evidence from Mutual Fund Investors,” Economics Letters, 2002, 76, p. 151-158). The third leadership behavior is managing conflict. Research shows that men have more strategies for effective conflict management available to them in the workplace than women (Episode 13 of the Science of Success: Social Secrets podcast here: http://scienceofsuccess.libsyn.com/podcast).The fourth leadership behavior is being heard. Research shows that, on average, men speak more assertively and longer about their ideas than women in business meetings while women tend to bring up their ideas as questions and wait for their turn to speak (Hardball for Women by Pat Heim, RGA Publishing Group: 1992).

The leadership behaviors of power motivation, risk-taking, managing conflict, and being heard are in alignment with the qualities linked with management success: ambition, competitiveness, self-confidence, and assertiveness (Sheaffer, Z.; Bogler, R.; and Sarfaty, S.; “Leadership Attributes, Masculinity and Risk Taking as Predictors of Crisis Proneness,” Gender in Management, 2011, 26(2), p. 163-187). For example, power motivation is a way to show ambition, risk-taking is a way to show competitiveness, managing conflict is a way to show self-confidence, and being heard is a way to show assertiveness. Men likely get promoted sooner than women because they exhibit these leadership behaviors (Manzoni, A.; Harkonen, J.; and Mayer, K.U.; “Moving On? A Growth-Curve Analysis of Occupational Attainment and Career Progression Patterns in West Germany,” Social Forces, 2014, 92(4), p. 1285-1312.).

Now let’s turn to the four leadership behaviors that come more naturally to women than to men. The first of these leadership behaviors is building trust. According to research, since women are more responsive to social cues than men, if a woman gets wind of an organizational threat and a man withholds information about it, then trust is damaged (http://insights.ccl.org/BuildingTrustInTheWorkplace.pdf). The second of these leadership behaviors is sacrificing self-interest for the team. Research on team work shows that women are more likely than men to seek and receive help for the benefit of the team and that women are typically not motivated by competition to win while men are (Ivanova-Stenzel, R.; and Kubler, D.; “Courtesy and Idleness: Gender Differences in Team Work and Team Competition,” 2005, Research Paper 049 of Collaborative Research Center 649 established by the German Research Foundation).The third of these leadership behaviors is collaborating. A willingness to be helped is also important to collaboration because neuroscience reveals that a state of confusion precedes insight, and new insight is a goal of effective collaboration (Episode 14 of the Science of Success: Social Secrets podcast here: http://scienceofsuccess.libsyn.com/podcast). The fourth of these leadership behaviors is active listening. Neuroscientists have shown that listening activates different brain patterns in men compared to women (Shaywitz, B.A. et al; “Sex Differences in the Functional Organization of the Brain for Language, Nature, 1995, 373, p.607-609), and behavioral scientists have found that women display three times the qualities associated with active listening than men (Pence, M.E.; and James, T.A.; “The Role of Sex Differences in the Examination of Personality and Active-Empathic Listening: An Initial Exploration;” International Journal of Listening, 2015, 29, p. 85-94).

The leadership behaviors of building trust, sacrificing self-interest for the team, collaborating, and active listening become more important as a person progresses up the hierarchy of an organization. There are several reasons. First, the expertise and knowledge gap between entry-level employees and executives continues to widen. This means that executives need to develop these social behaviors in order to effectively access and incorporate the new expertise and knowledge of entry-level employees into the decisions, strategies, and tactics for the organization. Second, the diversity of the workplace continues to grow as a result of shifting demographics and evolving societal values. Therefore, executives also need these social behaviors to effectively engage and motivate a more diverse work force.

Women expect the four leadership behaviors that come more naturally to them from all leaders including men. Similarly, men expect the four leadership behaviors that come more naturally to them from all leaders including women. The most effective leaders can meet the leadership expectations of both men and women in the organization. However, in order for organizations to access the gender competitive advantage that comes from having women in leadership positions, they need to address the gender leadership gap where it begins. Women need to learn how to exhibit the leadership behaviors that come more naturally to men earlier in their careers in order to break the cycle of delayed promotion. In addition, men need to support women in developing these leadership behaviors in ways that are effective given the culture and social norms present in the organization.

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