When going through the research  on gender and leadership it becomes clear that it is necessary to define the terms “sex” and “gender” and the use of these terms. And this is important. Because it makes a difference. I will explain why.

Both “gender” and “sex” can refer to the biological categorization of male and female. However, gender is a term with a much broader perspective than sex.

“the terms sex and sexes denote the grouping of people into female and male categories. The terms sex differences and similarities are applied to describe the results of comparing these two groups. The term gender refers to the meanings that societies and individuals ascribe to these female and male categories”[1].

Why is this important when discussing gender and leadership? Well, because often we try to compare the sexes, male and female leaders, which can be both fine and interesting. But we need to be aware of a dimension, which we cannot leave out, which is how the concept of gender affects leaders.

Looking at leadership in a gender perspective is important and interesting because leadership is an interactive process. A leader needs both social acceptance and approval from subordinates, peers, and superiors to be effective in his or her role [2] . Therefore, how others perceive a leader can affect a leader’s effectiveness. Because there is a constructed aspect of leadership how an employee interprets a leaders actions or behavior, e.g. according to their perception of gender,will affects how a person view and evaluate the leader.

Gender is a more complex concept than sex because it holds certain meanings, which society and individuals assign to gender.

Aspects of gender [3]


Now that we have the definitions in place, let us look at sex differences between male and female leaders.

Below is a table showing how male and female leaders differ.

This model is a very simplified picture of what many different studies found on sex differences between male and female leaders. Have in mind that some studies where based on 360-degree evaluations, meaning evaluation by subordinates, peers, superiors. Here the perception of gender could affect the evaluation.

That being said lets take a closer look at some interesting findings:

In a meta-analysis of 87 studies, Eagly [4] found that transformational leadership (overall feminine in style) and transactional leadership (overall masculine in style) appeared to be almost equally effective leadership styles, with the transformational style being slightly more effective.

There is a tendency towards men being more effective leaders than women, when the leadership role is masculine in nature. When the role is of a less masculine nature, female leaders are more effective than men. In government, education, and social services, women are viewed as more effective men, which could be because jobs in these areas are of a more feminine nature. Based on the above mentioned studies, Eagly concluded that “[…] women were judged to be less effective than men in leadership positions occupied by more men or associated with a higher proportion of male subordinates or when effectiveness was assessed by ratings performed by a higher proportion of men”.

Adams and Funk [5] surveyed Swedish directors, CEOs, and board members of publicly traded companies to find out more about their core values. They used a questionnaire that reflected the participants’ values with 40 different questions. The survey tested ten basic values, which are meaningful across cultures. The values were achievement, power, security, conformity, tradition, benevolence, universalism, self-direction, stimulation, and hedonism. Furthermore, as research has shown that women tend to be more risk adverse than men this was imbedded into the survey. A comparison was also made to members of the general population to see if the leaders differed from the average person in any way. Adams and Funk compared the results to international data and they argue that women executives in high-income countries are likely to share similar values as the Swedish female leaders in this study.

The study showed that male and female CEOs and directors differed in more ways. Male directors focused more on self-enhancing values such as power and achievement, while the women cared more about self-transcendent values, universalism and benevolence. The female leaders cared more about stimulation and had less focus on security and tradition. A surprising discovery was that the women did not turn out to be risk adverse but took more risks than their male counterparts did. In this study, the female board members were more prepared to take higher risks than the male board members.

In order to get a leadership position you have to negotiate “[..] with others to access the right positions, experiences, opportunities, resources, and assistance in both the professional and domestic spheres[6]. Studies show that women are less like to negotiate to obtain influence or move up in the hierarchy. Women have also been found to be more modest and less self-promoting.  In addition, women understate their success and achievements compared to men, who are better at promoting themselves [7].

In a study, comparing leadership style and behavior of managers in the UK across different industries, researchers found that women had a tendency to delegate less than their male counterparts [8]. In addition, the study found that male leaders, to a greater extent than female leaders, made use of inspirational motivation. Inspirational motivation is related to the transformational leadership style. The concept can be explain as the ability to create change by inspiring others. By painting a positive vision of the company’s future, this can affect the employees emotionally and engage them in helping to attain the company’s goals. The study did not find any significant differences when it came to other aspects of leadership style.

In a study of 360-degree leader assessments, researchers looked at how male and female leaders were rated. The assessments were collected by INSEAD in connection with an executive program. The study involved 2,816 executives in 149 different counties [9].

In this study, the idea that women tend to be more modest than men did not hold up. Women rated themselves higher than men did. Another surprise was that female leaders were given higher rating than their male counterparts. Both men and women scored the female leaders significantly higher than they did male leaders. The study found that women were only rated low on one component, and here only their male peers gave them a lower rating. This was on the component envisioning. There was no difference in how subordinates and superiors rated men and women on envisioning. Envisioning can be explained as being able to anticipate future organizational challenges, conveying strategies by setting direction, inspiring others, being innovative, and open. Envisioning or vision has been identified as a critical component of leadership.

In a very interesting study of 192 male and 192 female mayors in the US, it was found that male and female mayors had similar views on policy and budget issues and used power in the same ways. Differences appeared in that “[…] female mayors were far more willing to change the budget process, be more inclusive, and seek broader participation[10]. The female mayors were willing to admit to fiscal problems and enter into discussion when they changed their goals to a greater extend than male mayors were.

Next post will look closer at the similarities between male and female leaders.


Want to read up on the literature?

[1] Eagly, A. H., Johannesen-Schmidt, M., & van Engen, M.,L. (2003). Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles. Psychological Bulletin, 129(4), 569-591.

[2] Eagly, A. H. (2007). Female leadership advantage and disadvantage: Resolving the contradictions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31(1), 1-12.

Heilman, M. E. (2001). Description and prescription: How gender stereotypes prevent women’s ascent up the organizational ladder. Journal of Social Issues, 2001, 57; Vol.57(4; 4), 657; 657-674; 674.

[3] Ayman, R., & Korabik, K. (2010). Leadership: Why gender and culture matter. American Psychologist, 65(3), 157-170.

[4] Eagly, A. H. (2007). Female leadership advantage and disadvantage: Resolving the contradictions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31(1), 1-12.

[5] Adams, R. B., & Funk, P. (2012). Beyond the glass ceiling: Does gender matter? Management Science, 58(2), 219-235.

[6] Hoyt, C. L. (2010). Women, men, and leadership: Exploring the gender gap at the top. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(7), 484-498.

[7] Budworth, M., & Mann, S. L. (2010). Becoming a leader: The challenge of modesty for women. Journal of Management Development, 29(2), 177-186.

[8] Oshagbemi, T., & Gill, R. (2003). Gender differences and similarities in the leadership styles and behaviour of UK managers. Women in Management Review, 18(6), 288-298.

[9] Ibarra, H., & Obodaru, O. (2009). Women and the vision thing. Harvard Business Review, 87(1), 62-70.

[10] Weikart, L. A., Chan, G., Williams, D. W., & Hromic, H. (2006). The democratic sex: Gender differences and the exercise of power. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 28(1), 119-140.