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Inge Woudstra

W20 Consulting and Training


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Gender diversity and leading women: one size does not fit all 

It's time to expand our leadership toolkits if we want to nurture more female leaders.

When developing leaders, trainers can draw on a wide variety of models and research into what good leaders are, and what they need to know and do. Interestingly, all of these models assume that leaders treat everyone the same. Of course, there are the situational and behavioural theories that allow for adapting to the situation or type of followers, and do show that different people may indeed need something else from their managers.

What if there were differences between men and women, however? What if women have different preferences when it comes to how they prefer to be led than men?

Gender diversity in the human brain

It’s been proven that there are differences in how the male and female brain function, which means that the ways in which they are motivated and make decisions will vary, as well as how women and men prefer to be challenged, monitored and receive feedback.

None of this is taken into account in most current leadership and team research. In fact, past research is typically based on working with student populations (which, until recently, were predominantly male).

It’s no wonder then that leadership development programmes do not take into account these differences and line managers are not taught to be aware of differences.

Gender diversity is worse near the top

When looking at the figures, it becomes instantly clear that something isn’t working for women in organisations. Depending on the industry, it’s estimated that 30 - 50% of women are leaving between the ages of 30 - 40. From in-depth exit interviews it has become apparent that, contrary to popular opinion, starting a family is not the main driver in many cases.

Barbara Annis, a gender intelligence expert, found that while 30% did mention family reasons as the motivator for leaving, 50 - 60% of women cited male-dominated working environments, feeling excluded and undervalued as key reasons for leaving.

Sports coaches that work with women’s teams quickly learn to use strategies that are more supportive and encouraging.

According to McKinsey’s Women Matter report, it’s mindset and culture that need to change. Indeed, line managers are a key factor in the progress (or stagnation) of women’s careers, according to the 30% Club/KPMG’s Cracking the Code research. As a result gender diversity at the top is still an issue.

Changing the culture

So what is it that team leaders and line managers can do? It’s all about adapting to women’s needs, and expanding the leadership toolbox. Organisations need to find ways of leading teams that bring out the best in both men and women.

In interviews with top sports coaches, all of them stressed that they have always seen each player as an individual. It’s not possible to define what works for men and what works for women. However, they did have to learn some new behaviours when they started working with all-female teams. They learned to expand their leadership toolkit, and what they learned can be vital for line managers too.

Challenge versus encourage

Challenging men is a useful strategy to motivate a team to perform better. When working with men, many leaders set challenging targets or internal competitions to motivate them. It usually spurs them on to aim higher, fight back and show what they are worth. The impact of these strategies on groups of women, however, is not the same. When using similar strategies for women, it’s been shown to result in reduced confidence.

Women in the team feel personally hurt, as they don’t want to let the coach down, and it damages the relationship with the coach. As a result they give up, or pull together and rebel against the coach.

Top sports coaches show that understanding gender differences can make a real impact on team performance. Leadership models and research need to catch up.

Sports coaches that work with women’s teams quickly learn to use strategies that are more supportive and encouraging. This includes establishing a strong personal relationship, and keeping track of ‘good performance’ moments and relating those back with supporting evidence.

Check-in ratio

Men are usually happy with feedback on their end results. When they do not receive feedback, they assume they did well. If there is feedback, they take in where they need to improve, and enjoy working on that in isolation. Women, however, thrive on more regular feedback. When not receiving any after or during a match, they will assume something is wrong, and lose confidence quickly, according to the sports coaches interviewed. The coaches learned that it works well to give women positive feedback more often, and not just on results but also on progress.

Different ways of competing

The different responses to the coach are linked to how men and women compete. Men compete on the basis of being the biggest, the strongest or the best. When a challenge is set they get a chance to prove themselves in the hierarchy. When there is an issue they need to solve, they enjoy doing it alone, so they can claim the credit, another chance to prove their prowess.  

Women, on the other hand, compete on relationships – i.e. being nicest and most popular. It can be damaging for relationships to be the best, so challenges don’t work as well for them. Competing to be the strongest is visible and easy to measure. However, it’s harder to measure whether you are still ‘nice’ and have a good relationship.

Therefore, women get used to ‘checking in’ with each other from a young age. When they ask ‘what do you think of my drawing?’ or ‘can I still come to your birthday party?’ they are in fact checking if they are still have a good bond with the other person and are verifying their place in the female hierarchy. Women learn habits of continuously confirming each other. If a coach regularly checks in on how they are doing, and gives regular feedback it keeps their confidence up and they feel valued.

Line managers and gender diversity

Top sports coaches show that understanding gender differences can make a real impact on team performance. Leadership models and research need to catch up.

Line managers would do well to realise one size does not fit all, and learn to flex their style to what works for both men and women in senior roles.

Want to learn more about this topic? Read How to attract the next generation of female leaders.

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Inge Woudstra


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