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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Do Women Make Better Leaders?

by Shel Horowitz

Women are severely underrepresented among top executives, holding only 3 to 5 percent of top positions nationwide. But according to research from a wide range of sources both in the United States and abroad, gathered and presented to the Family Business Center's December gathering at the Clarion Hotel by Rich Giombetti and Paul Alves of FBC sponsor Giombetti Associates, a woman may often be the better choice.

Significant gender differences begin to manifest even in young children; when given blocks to play with, boys tend to build towers, while girls will build enclosures. Psychologist Eric Erickson says that the enclosures represent community and belonging, while the tower symbolizes a desire to conquer and compete.

Using the personality scoring instruments familiar to FBC through Giombetti Associates' many previous presentations, Giombetti and Alves examined 21 years of their research and determined that men and women differ on a number of key areas:

  • Females score an average of 12 percentage points higher on social skills; they are more empathic and better at working with (and supporting) people than men.
  • Women are more "hands-on" than men, more nurturing. Once again, there's a 12-point difference in the average score for delegation.
  • Women are more reflective, and more intuitive—by 10 points.
  • 12 points again separate women from men in their willingness to acknowledge and reward good performance in others. Alves says the female leadership style is "more user-friendly."
  • On competition, women scored 13 points lower than men. Women, in other words, ae much more likely to seek a resolution rather than a one-sided victory. In the words of Susan Lyne, CEO of Martha Steward Living/Ominmedia, "Always leave a little something on the table. A total win for one side in any negotiation is…almost a pyrrhic victory. It's important to make sure no one feels beaten in a negotiation." And Giombetti notes that "organizations are now rewarding collaboration" over competition—seeking people who can build and lead teams. Women, however, are not as keen to take risks—but when they do take risks, they've covered all the bases and gotten buy-in from all the key players. They are more likely to do the right thing for the organization than to conquer an opponent, he says.
  • Stability, according to the instruments used by Giombetti Associates is defined as a non-emotional approach. Whether emotion is really a lack of stability is debatable, but one thing that can't be debated is the spread. Women, by 16 points—the largest spread of any scale they measured—are more emotional than men, though many successful female executives have learned to disguise this.

Summarizing the results, Giombetti said, "The aggressive 800-pound gorilla is dead. Our research validates what they're saying about female executives." He believes that part of the dearth of female CEOs is that "not a lot of them want to pay the price" of shattered relationships and sharply limited personal time.

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