Women leaders: When they are good they are really good!

Women leaders only total 7 out of the top 100 companies in the UK (CIPD and High Pay Centre 2018) and in Ireland only 16% of new CEO’s are women (Central Bank 2018).  Did you also know that there are more Dave or Steve CEO’s in the FTSE 100 companies than there are women leaders?

So, the startling fact that there are more CEO’s named Dave or Steve is quite interesting, if not also a depressing fact.

I am a proponent of ‘positive discrimination’.  If women leaders are to be appointed, then a radical approach is needed to address these imbalances.  Of course, I am often ‘put down’ on this point by women who say they wish to be appointed based on merit.  On the face of this yes that principle is something I would also subscribe to.  The practicalities though are that even my young granddaughters (the oldest aged 7) will struggle to have an equal chance with men of becoming a CEO in their lifetime, particularly in private sector organisations.

Indeed, at this rate it will take a further 43 years for women to achieve 50% of CEO positions in the FTSE 100 companies.

Women Leaders: Are they paid the same as men?

Another fact is that whilst female CEOs’ in the FTSE 100 make up 7% they only earn 3.5% of the total pay.  These are massive discrepancies.  I could offer many facts for this, (often put forward by men) such as women don’t wish to take on these levels of ‘responsibility’, they wouldn’t wish to work very long hours and other pretty nonsensical arguments.

Women Leaders Gender Pay GapIf we look at the simple debate of equal pay, something that has been legislated for in the UK since 1970 we are still a long way off reaching parity in this area.  There are some bright spots in this regard in that when we look for example at pay in Northern Ireland women earn 3.4% more on average than men and they have been doing so since 2010.  One reason put forward for this is that Northern Ireland has a top-heavy public sector (30% of all jobs fall into this category) and pay equality has been partially regulated owing to civil/public service pay structures.  (Source World Economic Forum and Office for National Statistics).

Women Leaders: Do they have different personality traits to male Leaders

The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson in a Channel 4 TV interview (well worth watching) found that this was the case.  Women on average scored lower on assertiveness but higher on others such as agreeableness and emotional sensitivity traits that are often associated against the promotion of women.  Daniel Goleman commenting on the success factors of women leaders in Korn Ferry’s study “Women CEOs Speak”, found that women leaders worked harder and longer than men did in the same positions.  So, the argument that women don’t work long hours is a very weak one.

Almost matching Peterson’s finding Goleman found that on Emotional Intelligence, women score higher on empathy and social skill but that men tend to do better than women on their own self-confidence and ability to handle emotional upsets.  Of course, these findings are based on averages.

In a very large study led by Bart Willie in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour men and women in non-leadership roles found that women scored higher on traits such as being more agreeable, cooperative and people-oriented, but scored lower than men on emotional stability and some aspects of extraversion.


Women Leaders:  They do have similar traits to male leaders

In the study by Willie the personality traits of women leaders and male leaders were very similar with many of the sex-linked differences absent altogether.  Essentially, what the researchers found was that “…[M]en and women in executive positions demonstrate a similar pattern of classically masculine personality traits.”

Woman Leaders - Woman on a mountainTherefore, what appears to be happening is that the cultural dynamics of an organisation are more masculine in nature.  For women leaders to succeed they need to display the same or very similar male traits.  However, this then poses another question.  If we have organisations that have more females than males will the organisation be more feminine in its cultural outlook.  The UK Civil Service since 2001 has had 50% more females than males. This has increased from 46% in 1991, to 54% in 2018. However, women are still underrepresented in the senior civil service – only 43% of senior civil servants are women, although this has increased from 17% in 1996. (2018 – Source of Government Analysis of ONS).

A similar picture emerges in the UK Health Service, that despite occupying over 75% of all roles, women still fall behind in the leadership stakes. (Source NHS Digital 2018).

There has been some narrowing of the gaps in the National Health Service with 44 per cent of all Chief Executives across NHS Trusts, CCGs, supporting organisations and central bodies are women. In 2009 this was 38 per cent.  There has also been an increase of 340 female executive directors over the same period, meaning women now account for 47 per cent of this group.

When one considers speciality grades the NHS Digital 2018 report found that there are now more women doctors specialising in psychiatry (51% per cent) than men (49% per cent). In 2009, 45% per cent of this specialty group were women.  Women have also overtaken men in clinical oncology (now 53% per cent compared to 49% per cent in 2009) and dental (now 51% per cent compared to 43 per cent in 2009).

Surgery though continues to be predominantly male, despite a narrowing of the gap.  Only 27% per cent of surgeons are women compared with 24 per cent in 2009.

Women Leaders:  Are we confusing leadership with statistics?

I think that as a psychologist responsible for assessing individuals into ‘C’ Executive roles, when I look at the statistics I can often get lost in the fog.  Surely, what is needed is our ability to look at the person.  Not at statistics or averages or positive discrimination – but on the person, their qualities, their intelligence, financial abilities, delegation, and ability to deliver in the role and so forth.

Women Leaders - Individual PeopleIt does though seem that even with an increasing female workforce, male traits will predict promotion into senior roles for females.  However, Malloy points to the fact when companies rated themselves as ‘outstanding’, based on the ‘hard’ financials and the ‘soft’ indicators like people wanting to work with them both outstanding men and women leaders had similar emotional and social competence inventory scores.

Now I’m not saying that we should ignore statistics, they are extremely important to measure progress.  They are very useful in highlighting much of what is wrong in our approach with women into leadership roles.  This is clearly evident in the number of women leaders in the FTSE 100 companies but also in more female dominated industries.  Peterson though does raise a very interesting point in that the culture of the organisation perhaps must change.

Therefore, what makes a star performer?  Both women and men seem to have similar traits, although these tend to be more masculine than feminine.   Let me leave the last word to Daniel Goleman; women leaders have a wider range of emotional intelligence than men in similar positions.  Therefore, when they were good, they were very, very good.


Research Digest British Psychological Society | Korn Ferry Institute | Fortune Magazine | CIPD Executive Pay | NHS Digital | Central Bank of Ireland | Journal of Vocational Behaviour

About the Author

Dominic McCanny is a Chartered Business Psychologist working in the area of Executive Assessment and owner of Testing Talent.  He has worked for many years on diversity and equality issues so as to create inclusion and acceptance of under represented groups in the workplace.  He has over 20 years’ experience in this area.  Dominic can be contacted by clicking on the box below:

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