Leadership styles

Yael Hellman, Ed.D., Professor, Organizational Leadership, Woodbury University

The different communication styles between the sexes are well documented. Men tend to be more direct and goal-oriented while women tend to be relationship-oriented and seek harmony. However, it is important not to pigeonhole the skills that each gender brings to the table as far as leadership abilities go.

The capability to meld different communication styles is essential for organizations hoping to fully realize their potential. While males account for the majority of leadership positions, the influx of females into the workplace indicates that the tide may soon be shifting. “It has been about 30 years since women first began entering the workplace in a large number,” points out Yael Hellman, Ed.D., a professor in organizational leadership at Woodbury University. “Women now make up more than half of all college students and about half of all law and medical students.”

Smart Business spoke with Hellman about the different types of leadership styles that men and women exhibit, the dangers of gender stereotyping and how to provide an environment that encourages equal opportunities for advancement.

How do men and women differ in their leadership styles?

It is tempting to assume that the differences between men and women would automatically favor men, but they don’t. In today’s organizations, flexibility, teamwork, trust and information sharing are replacing rigid structures, competitive individualism, control and secrecy. The best leaders listen, motivate and provide support to their people. The leadership communication styles that women typically use make them better than men at negotiating. Some communication strengths for female leaders include: they enhance team work, they encourage innovation through collaboration and they increase opportunities for continuous improvement because of open access to information. Some strengths for male leaders include: they tend to set strong boundaries, they assign clear responsibilities and they weed out weak performers.

What are some of the similarities between the sexes?

The similarities among men and women managers are surprising. An extensive review of research suggests that similarities in leadership styles tend to outweigh the differences. Because of career self-selection and organization selection, people who choose careers in law enforcement or real estate have a lot in common. So do individuals who choose managerial or supervisory roles. Similarly, organizations tend to recruit and promote into leadership positions people who project leadership attributes.

Do gender differences in communication patterns translate to power at the workplace?

Yes. Problem solving, influencing superiors, delegating responsibility and other take-charge types of skills are key components of interpersonal power. Research suggests that women robbed of this interpersonal power in a company must rely more on their positional power and their place in the hierarchy of their organization. As women rely on the formal authority of their positions for their influence base, they comprise only approximately 16 percent of Fortune 500 corporate offices. Therefore, their positional power is limited.

How can gender stereotypes affect an organization?

Companies may suffer by not developing and retaining some of the best talent, which is key in remaining competitive in the global business world. The perceptions by senior executives of women and men are often more informed by gender-based stereotypes than facts. This leads to misrepresentation of the true talents of women and contributes to the startling gap in business leadership.

The effects of gender-based stereotyping can be devastating, potentially undermining women’s capacity to lead and posing serious challenges to women’s career advancements. Women are stereotyped as being better at feminine caretaking skills such as supporting and rewarding. Men are perceived as having essentially masculine taking-charge skills such as influencing superiors and delegating responsibility.

The stereotype that dominates current corporate thinking is that men are better problem-solvers than women. Since men far outnumber women in top management positions — women make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. Fortune 500 and Fortune 1,000 CEOs — this may keep women at lower management and professional positions.

How can an organization create a culture that is conducive to equal opportunities for both sexes?

Despite the fact that companies have shown an increased commitment to diversity, inclusion and advancement of women in the workplace, the representation of women in leadership positions remains stagnant.

Companies need to take active steps to combat stereotyping by instituting more rigorous and unambiguous evaluation processes, as well as educating managers and executives about stereotyping. The achievements of women leaders need to be showcased, particularly those in male-dominated fields. Development of a gender-sensitive workplace should be viewed as an overall company policy which strives to improve gender equality and enable women to participate equally in decision making. Those companies with a supportive, equitable business culture enjoy better financial results, improved market share and improved access to a growing, well-educated segment of the workforce.

YAEL HELLMAN is a professor of organizational leadership at Woodbury University. Reach her at (818) 252-5145 or [email protected]