Why are women still not perceived as strategic?

Female leaders are no less adept at strategic thinking, but perceptions of them as inclusive and nurturing prevents recognition of this, says Dr John Mervyn-Smith

While some progress has been made with regards to the number of women occupying leadership positions, it’s clear there is still a long way to go. Only 15 per cent of FTSE 100 finance directors are women, according to the Hampton-Alexander Review’s most recent report. 

Quotas and mentoring schemes are just some of the ways the government and businesses are trying to ‘level the playing field’, when it comes to gender equality on boards, but barriers clearly still exist. 

A lot of ink has been spilled on the question of why women aren’t occupying more senior positions. One notion that lingers is there is a general of lack, among women, of strategic skill required for such senior roles. But where has this idea come from and why is it still lingering today?

Margaret Thatcher, during her time in power, may have played a part in nurturing this notion of gender differences when she said: “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.” 

Interestingly, it’s around this time that opinions on gender-defined leadership in the workplace seem to divide between the nurturing versus directing styles, which may underlie some of the biases that exist today. 

One study noted that women adopted participative styles of leadership and were more transformational leaders than men, who adopted more directive and transactional styles of leadership. The study also reported that many women interviewed expressed the opinion that women were more thorough, had a better command of detail, and were less prone to self-promotion than men. This claim that women have a ‘feminine advantage’ because they are more adept at being inclusive, interpersonally sensitive, and nurturing may have contributed to the perception that they couldn’t be strategic leaders as well. 

The findings of a 2008 study by Catalyst researchers Jeanine Prime and Nancy Carter and IMD professors Karsten Jonsen and Martha Maznevski concur. In it, more than 1,000 executives from nine countries (all alumni of executive education programs) were asked for their impressions of men and women in general as leaders. Both men and women tended to believe that the two genders have distinct leadership strengths, with women outscoring men on some behaviours, and men outscoring women on others. However, when people were asked to rate the behaviours’ relative importance to overall leadership effectiveness, the ‘male’ behaviours had the edge.

In their 2009 HBR article Women and the Vision Thing, Herminia Ibarra, organisational behaviour professor at London Business School, and Otilia Obodaru, professor of management strategy and organisation at University of Bath, wrote:

"Many believe that bias against women lingers in the business world, particularly when it comes to evaluating their leadership ability. Recently, we had a chance to see whether that assumption was true. To our surprise, we found the opposite: as a group, women outshone men in most of the leadership dimensions measured. There was one exception, however, and it was a big one: women scored lower on “envisioning”—the ability to recognise new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise."

In this seminal article they went on to offer possible interpretations of this finding but, I would suggest, the headline still lingers: that men are better at envisioning. The importance of this view is that often leadership is seen as synonymous with vision. The groundbreaking work of US scholar, author and consultant Warren Bennis and US academic Berton Nanus reinforced this view when they described one of the four key strategies for leadership as 'attention through vision – articulating a compelling picture of the future'.

Envisioning is typically seen as a must-have capability (Ibarra and Obodaru, 2009) and presented in leadership capability frameworks as a capacity of strategic thinking.

At The GC Index we have explored this theme from a different perspective. Using a random sample of 2,955 (from a database of 10,000) responses to the GC Index, we looked for differences between men and women relative to the proclivity to be a strategist.

Our data shows that there were no statistically significant differences between women and men, and when we looked at men and women at board level, the average scores for both genders are almost identical but significantly higher than the general population. 

These data suggest, then, that to get to the board, strategic thinking is important. However, there are no gender differences.

What do all of these observations suggest? There may be a clue in our study of HRDs. We found that, consistent with Margaret Thatcher’s view, women in this group are significantly stronger implementers – ‘doers’ – than men, but equally strong when it comes to being strategists.

We could speculate about why women are stronger implementers but the risk, of course, is that these women get labelled as ‘doers’ – that’s what people ‘see’ and so they then fail to see the strategic thinking that brings direction to the doing.

The broader implications for women, regardless of job role, are while you might ‘win your spurs’ by doing, be prepared – if you have the proclivity – to build your reputation as a strategist. 

Dr John Mervyn-Smith is chief psychologist at The GC Index