“Some leaders are born women.”

Geraldine Ferraro

A recent study of 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates found some interesting comparisons between men and women leaders who work full-time1.

  • Women were significantly less likely than men to have direct reports (75% vs. 81%) and positions in senior management (41% vs. 57%)
  • Additionally, men reported significantly more compatibility of work and personal life compared to women (58% vs. 50%) and greater opportunities for career growth and development (50% vs. 41%)

Research has confirmed that only 6% of women stop working because the work itself is too demanding and only 74% of the “off-ramped” women who want to rejoin the ranks of the fully employed are able to do so2.

New research by Groysberg and Abrahams (2014) draws on five years’ worth of interviews with almost 4,000 executives worldwide, conducted by students at Harvard Business School, and a survey of 82 executives in an HBS leadership course compared both personal and professional definitions of success by gender. Their results confirm that women rarely identify their role as “working for” their families as men typically do.

Relative to men, women emphasized individual achievement (46% vs. 24%), obtaining respect from others (25% vs. 7%) and having passion for their work (21% vs. 5%), and making a difference (33% vs. 21%) as important definitions of professional success3.

On the other hand, men defined financial success (16% vs. 4%), enjoying work on a daily basis (14% to 8%) and ongoing learning/development and challenges as being much more important to work/life “wins” (24% vs. 13%). In terms of definitions of personal success, women defined rewarding relationships (i.e., family, community and people I love) as less important than their male counterparts (46% vs. 59%).

What Do We Know About Women Leaders From Prior Research?

  • A meta-analysis of more than 160 studies of sex-related differences found that women use a more participative or democratic and less autocratic style than men do (Eagly & Johnson, 1990).
  • Women, on average, are more aware of their emotions, show more empathy and are more socially competent (Goleman, 1998).  Goleman also suggests that men, on average, are more optimistic, adaptable, self-confident and better able to manage stress.
  • In another meta-analysis of 82 studies (Eagly, Karu, & Makhijani, 1995) found that male and female leaders do not differ in overall effectiveness and women are more effective when there are higher percentage of women or when the role requires greater requirements for cooperation and less authoritative control.
  • A Catalyst (2004) survey reported that 46% of women leaders cited exclusion from informal networks as barriers to career advancement compared to only 18% of men.  This finding is important in light of research suggesting that interpersonal networks increase influence, power, information and expertise and access to job opportunities.
  • Women report receiving less mentoring than their male peers (Ragins and Cotton 1991) but mentoring has been found to be more strongly associated with men’s career success relative to successful women (Lyness & Thompson, 2000).
  • Women are less likely than men to be given special assignments that are high risk to the company that typically provide visibility and recognition that often translates into career advancement (Lyness & Thompson, 2000).
  • Women are likely to be siloed into staff positions as opposed to line roles and females are less likely to be given international assignments despite studies that suggest that male and female MBA graduates express equal interest (Adler, 1994; Ryan & Haslam, 2007).
  • A recent meta-analysis found that when self ratings were considered, men rated themselves significantly higher than women in lower level positions but when “other” ratings were considered, women were rated significantly higher than men in both middle and senior leadership positions (Paustian-Underdahl et al., 2014)

In our own research using a validated managerial 360 feedback assessment (Manager View 360) we analyzed differences between 801 men to 417 women in leadership roles in diverse organizations.  Men rated themselves significantly better than their female counterparts on the competencies of Oral Presentation, Delegation, Conflict Management, Strategic Problem Solving, Decisiveness and Team Building (p < .01).

However, when we compared ratings by managers, direct reports and peers on a cluster of leadership competencies we found that women were rated significantly higher than their male counterparts (ANOVA; p < .01).


For a bit more insight about why women leaders might have a selective advantage as a leader, have a look at my new article in Talent Management magazine….Be well…..

  1. Ely, R., Stone, P. & Ammerman, C. (2014). Rethinking what you “know” about high-achieving women. Harvard Business Review, December 2014 []
  2. Hewlett, S. & Luce, C. (2005).  Off-ramps and On-ramps.  Harvard Business Review, March []
  3. Groysberg, B. & Abrahams, R. (2014). Manage your work, manage your life. Harvard Business Review, 2-10, March 2014 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Wellness

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