Women Versus Men as Managers - Are they different?

By Dr. Larry Pfaff

In terms of motivating and leading the workforce of today, who is best for the job? Men or women?

There has been a sort of conventional wisdom about male and female managers. Each supposedly has certain strengths and weaknesses. According to this line of thinking, women tend to be good at such things as communicating, making employees feel empowered and handing out positive feedback. Men are thought to be more decisive, are better at planning and have greater technical skills.

But those stereotypes didn't satisfy my curiosity, or that of my clients. After fifteen years of wondering, I decided to test the conventional wisdom.

For five years data was collected on 2,482 managers (1727 males, 755 females) from 459 organizations across nineteen states. It included managers at all levels. Using a method known as a 360-degree feedback, the data included each manager's self evaluation with evaluations from his or her boss and direct reports. The study attempted to measure each manager's ability in 20 different skill areas: setting goals, planning, technical expertise, coaching, evaluating performance, facilitating change, standards, recognition, delegation, approachability, participation, strategy, empowering, trust, self-confidence, communication, teamwork, resourcefulness and decisiveness.

The results were surprising. Female managers--as rated by their bosses, themselves and the people who work for them--are indeed better than their male counterparts at the "softer" skills such as communication, teamwork, feedback and empowerment. But they're also more decisive, better at goal setting, planning and facilitating change.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that women rated higher no matter who was doing the evaluating: bosses, employees or the managers themselves. Employees rated female managers higher than male managers in seventeen of the twenty skill areas, fifteen at a statistically significant level. Men and women tied in the other three areas (technical expertise, delegation, self-confidence). Bosses rated female managers higher than male managers in sixteen of the twenty skill areas, all sixteen at a statistically significant level. Bosses rated men higher on one area (Directive). And contrary to the accepted notion of women as terminally self deprecating, when managers did the self-rating, women gave themselves higher scores in fourteen skill areas, all fourteen at a statistically significant level. Men and women were tied on the other six areas.

Some of the biggest gaps appeared in the employee evaluations. For example, the largest differences came in planning, coaching, recognition, resourcefulness, and setting standards.

There's an irony here. One could theorize that women are more adept at the softer skills primarily as a result of their early socialization, which prepares them to be more concerned about communication and cooperation. Boys, meanwhile, may be taught to be more aggressive and focused on individual accomplishment. From the research, it appears that women have acquired nontraditional "male" strengths in recent years, but that men have not broadened their "soft" skills in the same way.

This is unfortunate, because the contemporary workplace increasingly needs more supportive, collaborative ways of accomplishing things. Women may be better prepared to lead in such ways as facilitating group processes, motivating employees and keeping focused on outcomes and goals. Men, it appears, still rely on a more autocratic style, emphasizing individual accomplishment and competition. Could it be that women, in general, combine those multiple skills more effectively?

If these results are accurate, they raise a question: If bosses think so highly of their female managers, how come they're not promoting them faster? Now that's a topic for another time.

Please send any comments, questions or suggestions to Dr. Pfaff at [email protected].

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