Gender Differences in Leadership - Principles of Management

The last three decades have seen a dramatic rise in the number of women found in leadership roles within organizations. In 1972 women filled 18 percent of administrative positions in the United States according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; by 2002 this figure had increased to 46 percent. It should be pointed out, however, that women are still unrepresented at the highest levels in organizations—only 16 percent of senior management positions in American industry were held by women in 2003.

The steady rise of women in the workplace raises an important question: Do women lead differently than men? Several writers think so. They suggest that women have an interactive style that includes more people-oriented and participative leadership. They also believe that women are more relationship-oriented, cooperative, nurturing, and emotional in their leadership roles.

They further assert that these qualities make women particularly well suited to leadership roles when companies are adopting a stronger emphasis on teams and employee involvement. These arguments are consistent with sex role stereotypes—namely that men tend to be more task-oriented whereas women are more people-oriented.

Are these stereotypes true? Do women adopt more people-oriented and participative leadership styles? The answers are no and yes, respectively. Leadership studies in work settings have generally found that male and female leaders do not differ in their levels of task-oriented or people-oriented leadership. The main explanation is that real-world jobs require similar behavior from male and female job incumbents.

However, women do adopt a participative leadership style more readily than their male counterparts. One possible reason is that, compared to boys, girls are often raised to be more egalitarian and less status-oriented, which is consistent with being participative.

There is also some evidence that women have better interpersonal skills than men, which translates into their relatively greater use of the participative leadership style. A third explanation is that subordinates expect female leaders to be more participative, based on their own sex role stereotypes, so female leaders comply with follower expectations to some extent.

Several recent surveys report that women are rated higher than men on leadership qualities such as coaching, teamwork, and empowering employees. Yet research also suggests that women are evaluated negatively when they try to apply the full range of leadership styles, particularly more directive and autocratic approaches.

Thus, ironically, women may be well suited to contemporary leadership roles, yet they continue to face limitations on leadership through the gender stereotypes and stereotypes of leaders held by followers. Overall, both male and female leaders must be sensitive to the fact that followers have expectations about how leaders should act, and leaders who deviate from those expectations may get negative evaluations from their subordinates.

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