Women and Leadership

Do Men and Women See Leadership Differently?

Generalization is risky. But we humans cannot resist searching for patterns. And there are interesting patterns around women and leadership and gender and leadership.


Some of you have already noticed that I said “men and women” in one paragraph and gender in the next. Gendered perspectives and approaches cross the boundaries of sex. Some men might use more feminine leadership approaches than others. Many would consider Margaret Thatcher’s style masculine. But in our society, such language can trigger negative emotions. So as I write about men and women, I acknowledge the layers of complexity: stereotypes, pressures and expectations, generalizations, and gender.

The Pyramid

When Henry Mintzberg did his groundbreaking study of [all male] executives in the late 60s, the pyramid metaphor was obvious. These executives expected information to be distilled and fed up through channels. They hoarded information. They—at the peaks of their pyramids—would make knowledgeable and sound decisions. The study isn’t recent, but is this concept current? Men still hold most power positions and the ubiquitous organization chart still looks like a pyramid. We still hear the phrase: “Knowledge is Power.”

The Hub or Web

When Sally Helgesen conducted a similar study of [all female] executives in the 90s, a more circular metaphor was obvious. These executives saw themselves in networks rather than at the tops of pyramids. They connected people and ideas in order to keep employees informed, so they could make knowledgeable and sound decisions. They regularly reached out beyond organizational boundaries. As one participant said: “A circle doesn’t box you in.” This study isn’t recent either, but is this concept current? There is a groundswell of thinking about networked, shared, distributed, and complex leadership. There is also a groundswell of mapping organizations as networks, to show the actual flows and connections beneath the official organization charts. We sometimes hear phrases such as: “Knowledge Shared is Power Squared.”

Other Studies

If you are reading this post, I expect many other studies and your own experiences are coming to mind. There is Deborah Tannen’s work about women engaging in “rapport talk,” and men in “report talk. “ An emerging scholar–Anne Litwin–has explored stresses in relationships between women when one is promoted. The woman promoted is often expected to emphasize hierarchy, whereas female employees expect her to use more egalitarian approaches. In a recent chapter, Litwin writes: “Women’s friendship rules are often at odds with workplace norms and can create confusion between women colleagues.”

Why Does This Matter?


Gender and leadership are rarely discussed openly and constructively in workplaces, especially in as they relate to one another. Yet, gendered differences in leadership matter for many reasons.

  1. Some people are comfortable with hierarches and some with networks. When pushed blindly out of their comfort zones, motivation and productivity can drop.
  2. Different contexts benefit from different approaches. Leading an emergency response doesn’t look like leading an effective public engagement strategy.
  3. Work is becoming more complicated and more complex. Our familiar pyramids do not serve us as consistently as they used to. Edward Tufte suggests that the ongoing, upward distillation of information on PowerPoint slides at NASA directly contributed to the Challenger Disaster.
  4. Others have described how segregated hierarchies of almost 20 intelligence organizations made 9/11 possible. Similar barriers hampered post-Katrina relief efforts.
  5. Increasingly we realize we need diverse approaches and perspectives. When companies include women board members, they tend to be more successfull. An MIT study found that more women make teams smarter. How can we optimize the value of diversity if we only understand it superficially?

Perhaps Helgesen was ahead of her time when she coined the book title “The Female Advantage.” And perhaps we are evolving to the point where organizations will learn more about women’s approaches to leadership in order to thrive, innovate and better serve their customers or citizens.


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