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Myth #4 – Female leaders are more nurturing

February 27, 2019

This is the fourth in a series on workplace myths, Empowering female leaderthose pervasive beliefs that hold a grain of truth but might not be as widely applicable as we think. This one feels very 21st century to me. We’ve got used to seeing more women in leadership roles (until you get to the very top) and there’s a feeling that they bring something different to leadership, something perhaps more suited to the 21st century workplace. But is it true?

What do we mean by ‘nurturing’?

I think a lot of things get wrapped up in the idea of the nurturing leader: concern for people’s well-being, supporting people’s development, getting to know staff as individuals, giving praise and encouragement, showing understanding about the other demands in people’s lives, being supportive when things go wrong and so on. You could probably sum it up in two words: being nice.

So are women nicer than men?

No, don’t be daft. When you put it as starkly as that, it sounds a bit ridiculous. Obviously there are many, many nice men in the world and plenty of women who aren’t particularly nice. But if I asked whether women are more caring, chances are you’d say yes, mostly they are. What this suggests is that we have different standards for what we (all collectively) expect from men and women to qualify as ‘nice’.

What the psychology says is that, on average, women are more agreeable than men. That is, we’re easier to get on with, more co-operative, less confrontational, more sympathetic. Of course, that doesn’t mean all women are more agreeable than all men. On average, men are taller than women, but some women are six foot tall and some men are under five foot five.

Nature or nurture?

There is almost certainly some biology in there. For example, as we know, men are driven by their hormones* and testosterone can make them go a bit crazy – aggressive, prone to take unnecessary risk, particularly if their masculinity is threatened, a bit less nice.

But clearly, nurture has a lot to do with it too. Women are socialised to consider others’ needs and, perhaps, put them above our own. If you want a simple, real world demonstration, watch people walking on a busy street and see who adjusts their path to get out of others’ way more often.

*Yeah, yeah, we’re all driven by hormones, of course. I’m just counteracting the dominant narrative that suggests women are governed by their biology, while men run on pure unadulterated logic.

Are female leaders more nurturing? 

Maybe. The evidence for whether men and women lead in different ways is mixed. Some studies suggest women  leaders may be more nurturing, others that people simply perceive them differently. An analysis of masses of 360 degree feedback data, found that women leaders were rated more highly than male leaders by everyone except themselves.  And yes, they were rated as more nurturing and supportive, but interestingly the biggest differences were in areas such as taking initiative, acting with integrity and driving for results. In other words, women weren’t leading in a different way, they were just better at it all round.

Before we get too carried away about women as super-leaders, it’s worth bearing in mind that the data gets rather skewed. A lot of very talented men make it to senior positions, but so do rather a lot of average ones. It’s rare, however, for an average woman to make it that far. So the data is comparing a smaller number of highly talented women with a larger number of both talented and fairly average men.

Is being a nurturing leader seen as a positive?

Yes but… On the one hand, 21st century leadership is all about empowerment, inclusion, bringing people with you. We seem to be moving away from old style, command-and-control leadership where a powerful authority figure tells you what to do and you do it. Millennials won’t put up with that sort of thing, we’re told. (Although let’s be honest here, this applies mostly in nice workplaces, where nice people do nice jobs. There’s plenty of command-and-control in a Sports Direct warehouse).

This supportive leadership style seems to play to what are seen as women’s strengths (whether they actually are or not). I’ve always been slightly suspicious of this narrative, even when it’s well-meaning. If 21st century leadership requires skills that women are seen has excelling at, why are we not over-represented in senior positions?

Obviously there’s a complex mix of reasons, but I think it’s partly because, in the end, all that fluffy empowerment stuff is still seen as a ‘nice to have’ (even if research suggests it isn’t). The real work is still seen as being elsewhere – the vision and strategy, the tough commercial negotiation, the cut and thrust of business. And these, wrongly, are still seen as male domains.

There is a real risk of side-lining women. A nurturing female leader, who takes care of the people back at the ranch, is less threatening to the status quo than a powerful female leader, who takes the organisation forward out in the world.

More nurturing than what?

I deliberately left the title of this article vague. I suspect most people would take it to mean women are more nurturing than men. But it could mean women are more nurturing than they are strategic or analytical or business-oriented. I don’t think we even notice it, but when we talk about nurturing female leaders we imply that women’s primary contribution as leaders is to be nurturing and empowering. Sometimes it will be, but often it won’t. Some women’s key contribution will be strategic vision. Some will be fantastic at turning a vision into an actionable plan. Others may have a relentless focus on continuous improvement. As I’ve discussed here many times before, leadership requires a blend of different contributions and no one is good at all of them. It does women and men a disservice to assume that women will handle the people-y bits.

If you’d like to talk about the mix of leadership in your organisation, I’m happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Photo credit

New American Leaders Project

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