At a leadership event in Paris, former United States President, Barack Obama, offered some interesting thoughts on a hot leadership topic – who makes better leaders, women or men?
According to Obama, the world needs more women in leadership positions “because men seem to be having some problems these days”, adding – “Not to generalise, but women seem to have a better capacity than men do, partly because of their socialisation”.
When it comes to the ‘Who is better?’ question, there are some drawbacks: it’s a question that creates unnecessary division and encourages sweeping generalisations.
We might as well ask which of the sexes makes better drivers, or which makes better cooks. Of course, on the micro level, it depends on the individual. Some women are far better drivers than some men; similarly, some men will cook up amazing dishes compared to some women.
Having said that, there continues to be a glaring gap in leadership when it comes to the number of women in lead roles compared to men. What’s more, research seems to back up the opinion of Barack Obama and many others, that the world could do with having more women in leadership roles.
Surveys conducted by leadership development firm, Zenger Folkman, showed that while women in America have been contributing significantly to the nation’s gross domestic profit, they have been conspicuous by their relative absence in the boardroom.
Folkman’s study of over 60,000 leaders across America and internationally found that women are considered to be more effective leaders than men.
On effective leadership, Zenger Folkman president, Joe Folkman observes, “A great leader can connect with people, and we find that as leaders progress in an organisation, their ability to empathise and understand people is absolutely critical for a senior executive. If a leader doesn’t do that, they don’t get the kind of engagement and commitment from employees.”
One of the areas in which women, in general, outperform men is emotional intelligence and the ability to attract strong peer groups, whether it be in their workforce teams or wider communities.
According to Barack Obama, it is women’s ability and willingness to ask the right questions that, in part, accounts for their capacity for success in leadership roles.
For example, women leaders often place a strong emphasis on empowering those around them: not only are they interested in their own success, they also have a powerful desire to lift everyone else in turn.
Women are also (generally speaking) better organisers than men, which means that they have a stronger ability to inspire everyone to pull their weight in the same direction to achieve shared goals.
Here in Malaysia, there is still much work to be done in getting more women into leadership roles. However, there has been some great progress made which continues to shine a light on the importance of women leadership and how closing the inequality gap can make a huge difference to the nation’s productivity, progress and overall well-being.
In an insightful article by Johan Merican and Shareen Ghani, they write, “The importance of advancing women at work and in leadership is that it is good for everyone (both men and women). Malaysia will not emerge a high-income nation if we do not optimise half the population, especially when the fairer sex is emerging as the more educated cohort.”
Traditionally, leadership has been centred on ‘The Great Man’ model, which began to erode during the Second World War when women were needed to fill in for men as they headed off to battle.
It was during this time that the capability, resourcefulness and agility of women in the workplace was truly noticed, and rightly so. Since that period, the advancement of women in leadership roles – slow as it’s been – has increasingly demonstrated the futility of leaving women on the sidelines.
When organisations truly embrace the leadership potential of women, everything improves. Engagement soars, efficiency increases, inequality decreases, and the organisation as a whole becomes more emotionally intelligent and socially aware.
When the views of world leaders align with research data, as business leaders we cannot afford to ignore the message that this sends: If our businesses, communities and our nations are to thrive, we must not only do more to encourage talented women into leadership roles, but we must also act faster to ensure we close this gap of inequality.
By doing so, it will benefit everyone and make us stronger.
This article is also available in Chinese.