The response to our HBR blog "Are Women Better Leaders than Men?" has been dramatic, to say the least. Clearly, women in leadership is a topic that bears examining in greater detail. As follow up, we've delved deeper into our data in search of further answers.
All would agree that many factors go into hiring the right person for a job. What exactly causes a manager to choose person A over person B? Are some people hired because of whom they know? Yes. Are some individuals more likely to receive promotions or positions because they belong to a certain gender or race? Yes. Unfortunately, unfairness does exist in the workplace.
We all believe the best qualified person should get the job and that gender, race, or relationships should not be a factor. But our data suggest that, unconsciously, other dimensions weigh heavily upon the final decision, as well.
As we said in our previous blog, the pattern in the data we cited from our latest survey is unmistakable.The majority of senior leaders are still men, and the higher up in the organization you go, the greater the disparity becomes. And yet at the same time, women at every level were perceived by their bosses, their colleagues, and their direct reports as superior to their male counterparts on three quarters of the competencies our long years of conducting and analyzing 360-evalutions have shown are critical to superior leadership effectiveness. It's hard not to conclude that when it comes time for promotion, some — many — highly qualified women are being overlooked.
What's more, a deeper look at our data reveal, qualified women appear to be similarly underrepresented in specific functional areas of the organization. It's no news to say that stereotypes exist about which functions women are expected to excel in: Usually these include customer service and human resources. Areas like sales, operations, engineering, IT, R&D, and facilities management are perceived as male bastions. In terms of numbers, these biases are confirmed by our latest survey of 7,280 leaders, which our organization evaluated in 2011.
But when it came to perceptions of excellence, the numbers tell a different story, as you can see in the chart below (click to see a larger image), which pairs the percentages and perceptions of effectiveness (as reported in 360 evaluations) for male and female leaders in 15 different functional areas.
In only three of the 12 categories were men perceived by everyone they worked with as more effective than their female counterparts, and interestingly two of them — customer service and administrative functions — are classically considered areas in which women excel. What's more, the largest differences between men's and women's effectiveness rankings are generally in those functional areas that are highly dominated by males (sales, general management, R&D, IT, and product development). These disparities are even more stark in the aggregate at the extremes. When looking at the percentage of male and females who were rated the highest and the lowest, females have a lower percentage of the worst and a higher percentage of the best, as you can see from the following chart (click to see a larger image).
Certainly, some of these patterns can be explained by the makeup of candidate pools: there simply are far fewer female than male engineers, for example. And also by the fact that women currently in leadership positions come from an extremely selective population, and they have worked tremendously hard to achieve their positions.
But surely to some extent these numbers are a reflection of upper management's subjective beliefs about how each person would perform in these roles — beliefs that simply are not borne out by the data.
It is high time to put our notions of gender roles in the workplace to rest. Women excel when given the opportunity. And so do men, particularly when they, too, feel the need to prove themselves in nontraditional roles. The good news about this research isn't that women are better than men. It's that both men and women can develop their leadership skills and abilities, and no area need be reserved for one or the other.
What it takes to develop great leaders, whether male or female, is their own willingness to develop, being given opportunities to grow through challenging job assignments, and support through mentoring and coaching from senior leaders.