Women in Power: Leadership Differences By Gender

Guest post by Allie Freeland (learn more about Allie at the end of this post)

As women progressively enter leadership roles and management positions in organizations that traditionally used to be held by men, many pose questions about leadership styles and gender.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nearly one of four chief executives and one out of twenty top-management positions in Fortune 500 corporations, are women. These statistics are only slightly higher than 20 years ago. (When the Boss is a Woman, 2008)

This statistic draws a question: what is the difference between a man and woman’s leadership style? A few of the most important and valuable leadership traits are: honesty, intelligence, work ethic, decisiveness, ambition, compassion, and creativeness. Is it possible that one could posses more of one trait depending solely on gender?

After history made its own mark on our present, women are no longer loved and valued for just being feminine. The modern-day female has to work as hard as males to deserve any type of respect or appreciation, but at the same time motherhood responsibilities stayed the same. Maybe those are the reasons why it is so difficult for women to make it all the way up political or corporate leadership ladders? Leaders must be tough enough to make difficult, bottom-line decisions that serve the overall needs of the organization.

Biologically females are more sensitive, emotional, and self-critical than men. Can the biological and psychological traits of women make a negative effect on their leadership style? Do women suffer from a lack of authority? Does a society have a cliché that women can’t be tough and fearless?

Women in Leadership and Communication Styles

The study of language and gender provides additional perspective on women’s leadership gaps. Robin Lakoff’s article titled Women in Power from the New England Journal of Public Policy states: “Women have a different way of speaking from men. Women’s language is rife with such devices as mitigators (sort of, I think) and inessential qualities (really happy, so beautiful)”.

According to the American Psychological Association, a woman’s leadership style is more like mentoring and coaching, while a man’s style is centered around command and control. As a result, women are more likely to be transformational leaders, helping employees develop their skills and talents, motivating them, and coaching to be more creative. This approach can be very effective in today’s world, when costumer service becomes one of the most profitable types of business. At the same time, this kind of leadership style might not be very beneficial in traditional male settings such as military or organized sports.

Studies made by Alice Eagly in an article titled “The Leadership Styles of Women and Men” in Journal of Social Issues show that the difference between men and women leadership styles is small but significant. “Women exceeded men on three transformational scales: the attributes version of idealized influence, inspirational motivation, and individualized consideration. These findings suggest that female managers, more than male managers, manifest attributes that motivate their followers to feel respect and pride because of their association with them, showed optimism and excitement about future goals, and attempted to develop and mentor followers and attend to their individual needs. Women also exceeded men on the transactional scale of contingent reward. This finding suggests that female managers, more than male managers, give their followers reward for good performance.”

In contrast men exceeded women in transactional scales of active management by expectations and passive management by expectations. “These findings suggest that male managers, more than female managers, paid attention to their followers’ problems and mistakes, waited before problems became severe before attempting to solve them, and were absent and uninvolved at critical times.”

According to the Pew Research Center Social and Demographic surveys, women are more honest, compassionate, outgoing, and creative; all important traits those are a few of the most of effective leaders. So why are most of the leaders in modern America men? In one survey, the public cites gender discrimination, resistance to change, and of course “old-boys club” as the main reasons why women have less opportunities and more challenges to make their way up in organizations. Some of the respondents also mention women’s family responsibilities and their shortage of experience as detriments to a successful career. In the mean time the same research shows that 69 percent of respondents say that men and women are equally good leaders.

Alice Eagly, a Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University and let devotee of gender studies states:

“Even though the research found some differences in management style…the sex differences are small because the leader role itself carries a lot of weight in determining people’s behavior. Women are in some senses better leaders than men but suffer the disadvantage of leadership roles having a masculine image, especially in some settings and at higher levels. Stripping organizational leadership of its masculine aura would allow psychologists to get a clearer picture of any true differences between men and women.”

As an answer to my question whether there is a difference between men and women’s leadership style is yes. Women leadership styles can be more effective and productive in today’s less hierarchical organizations, but in the mean time can destroy the traditional male setting in companies. A women’s psychological frame of mind can make them look less powerful than men; but in the meantime dismissing any candidate on the basis of gender not only denies opportunity to talented individuals but also can decrease the amount of genuine leaders in an organization.


Bunker, K. A. (2005, September/October). A Question of Leadership. LiA, 25, 14.

Eagly, A., & Johannesen-Schmidt, M. (2001, December). The Leadership Styles of Women and Men. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 781. Retrieved June 9, 2009, from EBSCO MegaFILE database.

Laff, M. (2007, March). THE INVISIBLE WALL. T+D, 61(3), 32-38. Retrieved June 9, 2009, from EBSCO MegaFILE database.

McKenna, M. (2007, Special Issue: Women). Women in Power. New England Journal of Public Policy, 22(1/2), 7-16. Retrieved June 9, 2009, from EBSCO MegaFILE database.

When the Boss is a Women. (2006, March 22). APA Online. Retrieved May 29, 2009, from American
Psychological Association Web site: http://Psycologymatters.org/womanboss.html

Men or Women: Who’s Better Leader. (2008, August 25). PewResearch center publications. Retrieved May 29, 2009, from PewResearch Center Web site: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/932/men-or-women-whos-the-better-leader

About the Author: This article was written by Yulia Vinnytska. She is a Rasmussen College – Eagan, MN business degree seeking student in her senior year.

Hilary Brooks

Hilary Brooks is President, CEO of A Virtual Edge, a full-service virtual assistant company, and Owner of freelance web design company Small Biz Web Whiz. Hilary and her team offer a wide variety of services to busy entrepreneurs, speakers, coaches, and bloggers, providing the office and creative support they need to succeed without all the hassles of hiring a traditional employee.

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  1. Brian says

    “According to the Pew Research Center Social and Demographic surveys, women are more honest, compassionate, outgoing, and creative”

    That’s a survey of American’s opinions on women and men. The only thing that survey measures is culture and opinion, and you’ve used opinion to state that women are innately more honest, creative, etc. Way to be intellectually responsible. Hey, its my opinion that men are more honest.

    There’s a growing movement out there that cites the same evidence and spews misleading information into our collective knowledge, unfortunately making people believe that men are naturally more dishonest or incompetent. Or that men are innately violent. It’s a ridiculous statement to proclaim that women are across the board just naturally more honest or better leaders than men.

    I love that women are becoming leaders and are being elevated in society to a level where they have always deserved to be, as equals to men. And I love that women are encouraging methods in leadership that society has traditionally chastised, shamed, and overwhelmingly discouraged men from having. That is emotional sensitivity and compassion, instead they are not men unless they use domination and control. I feel like with an integration of these two styles, aggressive and compassionate, you will find a truly effective leadership. And likewise, if society then leans too heavily on “mentoring female” leadership like they have on “dominating male” leadership, I can very easily imagine these articles being written about the introduction of the pioneering, aggressive male into leadership positions and how his success in this new aggressive and directional “male leadership” is evidence that men are better leaders. Any system that dwells only on one type of leadership (be it stereotypically feminine or masculine leadership) will always find itself inferior to an integrated (stereotypically feminine AND masculine, or basically what leadership should be to begin with) leadership style, in my opinion.

    Edited per WomenOnBusiness.com Comment Policy: “Comments that attack a person individually will be edited or deleted.” “Comments including profanity will be edited or deleted.”

  2. Amy says

    If you look at what employers value and test for (http://faculty.washington.edu/mdj3/MGMT580/Readings/Week%204/Day.pdf), actually presenting yourself as better and more aligned with the people around you than you really are is a _skill employers value_. And I think one reason that they value this is that I/O psychology looks at people who are perceived to be good performers and measures various characteristics about them and tries to hire people who duplicate those characteristics.

    And who is likely to be perceived as best at the job? People who are effective at convincing others as better than they are (dishonest people, some might say). I don’t think I need to post studies that show that women tend to be reluctant to portray themselves as better than they are (just poke around on this site), so that kind of only leaves men to be the majority of this group. So that means that companies are selecting for traits that are primarily expressed in men, which is a subtle form of gender bias.

  3. Brian says

    Amy, being a high self-monitor person does not equate to dishonesty. I’m not sure why you consider adjusting personal behavior to meet the demands of the situation as dishonest but its not. Maybe you interpreted self-monitor to mean pretending or lying or saying whatever needed to be said even if it went against personal principles, in which case I would agree it would be dishonest. But this is not what being a high self-monitor means. Being a high self monitor is simply one psychological method of dealing with yourself. People can be a high self monitor because of anxiety, or ambition (like in business for example), or a high need of approval, or whatever. And I guarantee you, if you had an all female sample you will find that more high self-monitor women will be the ones getting into leadership positions than the low self-monitor women. Would you then use this to prove that women were dishonest because all the women in power were high self-monitors? Or would this prove the common sense principal that those who are highly socially responsive and aware of themselves (in the way they look, respond, etc) would be those more likely to be viewed well by management?

    Like I had said in my previous post, its unfortunate that studies like these are more and more commonly (in my experience anyway) being misinterpreted and misused to promote differences and the idea that one sex is better or more pure than the other. Being aware of yourself and adapting to social context does not equate to lying. Nor can the fact that the few men in power tend to be high self-monitors be used as proof that all men are mostly high self-monitors (which you call dishonesty). That’s quite a narrow representative population of men to be using if you’re trying to use it to paint all men as being a certain way.