Safe To Say Women Are Better Leaders

Mar 10, 2017 1 Min Read
women champions at home and at work


Studies show women excel across all management levels

It is a question that’s likely to be debated for some time to come: Do women make better leaders than men?
To take a brief look at the evolution of “a woman’s place” from the traditional point of view, we head back to 1930s UK – a time when gender roles were clearly defined and conservative patriarchal views were firmly in place.

Women were expected to stay at home while the men went out to work. Although it was acceptable for women to work outside the home, they were paid less than men (some practices have sadly remained intact). If a woman was to be married or have children, she would be expected to leave her job.

As World War II broke out, all of that changed. For the first time, as fathers were conscripted to the armed forces or summoned for other work, women found themselves left with having to manage the household as well as go out to work.

Young, single women often found themselves away from the family home for the first time, working jobs miles away from their loved ones.

Flexible working hours and other necessary arrangements became the norm to accommodate these new working mothers. And if you think they were stuck in comfortable office jobs, think again – women pretty much held the country together across all sectors.

They serviced the railways, worked on canals and buses, built infrastructure and tanks, maintained vehicles, and worked in metal and chemical industries – I could go on, but I don’t have the space.

A paradigm shift

“Before the war,” one of my former lecturers told me, “women were seen as emotional, dainty little souls who got on with looking after the children and having afternoon teas. When the war came about, it changed everything. Suddenly, it was discovered that women could do a man’s job to the same standard, if not better – and all the while, they carried on with their everyday duties outside their new roles.”

World War II proved to be a catalyst for social change: when its end finally arrived in 1945, it was impossible to undo this new known: that women were just as capable as men – and often even more so – at getting the job done, whatever the job may be.

In 2014, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology analysed the findings of 99 different studies from 1962–2011 in order to discover nuances within leadership in relation to the gender divide.

Predictably, the results suggested that environment played a key role in determining each gender’s general effectiveness in leadership. In male-dominated areas such as military or government, male leaders were viewed to make better leaders than women. Conversely, women were seen as most effective in areas such as social services and education – they also came out on top in the sweeping term “business”.

It’s important to consider the validity of results, particularly when we consider the variables. In relation to the findings, the meta-analysis researchers noticed that the answers given depended on who was being asked.

When leaders were asked to evaluate their contributions, men tended to rate themselves more highly than women rated themselves. However, when others (bosses, employees, and customers) did the rating, women came out on top, particularly in the studies that took place from the 1980s onward.

Missing opportunities

In 2011, research by Zenger & Folkman surveyed over 7,000 leaders from successful companies around the world. The survey found that 64% of the leaders were men – the higher the level of management, the more men there were.
The stereotype that women were better than men at “nurturing” competencies prevailed (e.g. building relationships), alongside women scoring higher in terms of exhibiting integrity and engaging in self-development.

Figure 1.

Interestingly, despite the figures that placed men in the majority of leadership roles, women scored higher than men across all management levels that described overall effectiveness of leadership, as illustrated in Figure 1.

In addition, when measured across 16 leadership competencies, women came out on top in most areas, with men scoring considerably higher in just one area – the ability to develop a strategic perspective. The full outline of the scores are included in Figure 2.

Figure 2.

The late Christopher Hitchens once said of Third World countries that, if they really wanted to alleviate poverty, the best course of action would be to empower women. “The whole floor lifts up,” he insisted, adding that when women have control over their lives and can enjoy the same rights as men, the whole of society benefits as a result.

In a New York Times article, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote that, “Start-ups led by women are more likely to succeed; innovative firms with more women in top management are more profitable; and companies with more gender diversity have more revenue, customers, market share and profits.”

From the same article, Sandberg and Grant reveal that, when male executives speak up, their competency scores rise by 10%. When women executives speak up, their ratings among peers plummet by 14%.

Wanted: a level playing field

Despite the incredible progress that has been made since World War II, there’s still a lot of work to be done to fully address the gap in gender equality for women in leadership roles – to say nothing of the substantial pay gap.

Perhaps what some are reluctant to say, but which nevertheless appears to be the reality of gender inequality, is that the hierarchical traditions where men rule are still the accepted norm, so much so that, in 2016, we consider it a celebration of progress that America has seen its first female nominee for the presidency.

While positive progress should always be celebrated, however slowly it arrives, it nonetheless betrays a deep-seated problem that men are still seen as the superior sex when it comes to leadership, despite growing evidence pointing to the contrary.

Even in areas such as the military – those that are male-dominated – there’s no proof to suggest that women can’t make just as good leaders and commanders as men. The reason why men have traditionally been predominantly capable in such areas is precisely because the rules were set by a patriarchal system in the first place.

As World War II illustrated, the notion that a woman’s place should be exclusively confined to the household wasn’t just ridiculous – it likely prevented substantial economic and social progress that could have otherwise manifested had women been able to contribute fully to society prior to the outbreak of war.

When it comes to the question, “Do women make better leaders than men?”, the research would suggest that, at the very least, they perform equally well as leaders.

Given women’s superior emotional intelligence and nurturing competencies, both of which aid the building of relationships and navigating the nuances of leadership challenges, it’s surely safe to stick one’s neck out and say that they might just make better leaders after all.

Of course, it’s important to note that leadership is a complex practice in itself and, regardless of gender, effective leadership boils down to whether or not any particular individual possesses the necessary skills, competencies, and character to lead others.

But with an existing gap waiting to be filled, we can only hope – for the sake of all concerned – that we see a rapid increase over the coming years of more women in leadership roles. To date, the world’s troubles have transpired under the watch of male leaders. At the very least, female leaders would find it difficult to do a worse job.


5 women who changed the world

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Author and anti-slavery campaigner

The American author’s bestselling 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped popularise the anti-slavery movement. Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln greeted Beecher Stowe at the White House by saying: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War,” in reference to the civil war. Her novel followed the life of black slave Uncle Tom, and was the second best-selling book of the 19th century after the Bible.




Emmeline Pankhurst

Led women’s right to vote movement

British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, a group known for extreme forms of protest such as chaining themselves to railings and going on hunger strikes. “We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers,” she said during a court trail in 1908. Sadly, Pankhurst never lived to see her dream become reality, dying three weeks before a law was passed giving women equal voting rights with men.




Rosalind Franklin

Scientist who helped with the understanding of Dna
British chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin’s research was key in revealing the structure of DNA.

Her X-ray photographs of the double helix were used by scientists Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins, who in 1962 were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on the DNA model.

However Franklin missed out on a Nobel Prize, dying from ovarian cancer in 1958 at 37.






Wangari Maathai

Founder of the Green Belt Movement
“When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope,” said 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai.

The Kenyan political activist founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 in an effort to empower rural women who had started reporting their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further than ever before for firewood.

The movement has since spread across the world, campaigning on climate change and teaming up with the United Nations Environment Programme.






 Simone de Beauvoir

Philosopher and writer of “The Second Sex”
French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book “The Second Sex” became a landmark feminist work.

It analysed the treatment and perception of women throughout history, and was deemed so controversial that the Vatican put it on the Index of Prohibited books. “All oppression creates a state of war; this is no exception,” said De Beauvoir who, along with partner Jean Paul Sartre, was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.









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Sandy is a former Leaderonomics editor and is now a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As editor of, he has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.

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