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Leadership is not gendered

18 Jul 2019 By Kate Cooper

Some people still believe men make better managers, but gender doesn’t factor into what makes a great leader, argues Kate Cooper

Recent research commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust found that one in five women still believe their workplace is sexist and one in 10 men believe men make better managers than women. For me, that’s the most astounding part of the research – there’s still the antiquated notion that gender can affect leadership quality and is holding women back in the workplace.

The Institute of Leadership and Management has identified five dimensions of great leadership: authenticity, vision, ownership, collaboration and achievement. In developing these dimensions, we undertook research that focused on the everyday practice of leadership and management. This gave us some terrific insights into the behaviours that leaders and managers engage into both inspire and ensure trust.  A repeated finding from our research is the importance of trust and how much people want to trust their leaders and managers. 

Our research revealed the behaviours that undermine this trust: a manager showing favouritism, not listening to other people’s points of view, holding teams responsible for events beyond their control and pursuing personal interests ahead of the organisational objectives are all undermining.

It is quite easy to see how these behaviours would weaken trust, but if you ask people what they really want from their leaders or managers they will say things such as to have their backs, to coach not to tell, to understand them as a whole individual. Fundamentally, they want their manager to value them. 

Our research earlier this year, New Year New Job, also revealed how undervalued so many people feel by their managers and, if you do not feel that your manager values you then it is so much more difficult to trust them.

We have since been exploring how people can improve that feeling of being valued. It is important to mention that we are not only locating the responsibility to demonstrate value with leaders and managers but, in further research we are looking at what individuals can do to help their managers to earn and build their trust and make them feel more valued. 

However, of all the insights we have gathered from our research, something we don’t hear is that gender is somehow more significant than any of the other things that people want in a great manager. 

Our recent Trust in Leaders research indicated that female managers are slightly more trusted than their male counterparts. This could be explained biologically by women having higher oxytocin levels, or sociologically by us being programmed to trust women more than men, or psychologically by women and men having different degrees of emotional intelligence. However we choose to explain it, and there is not a definitive answer here, what is clear is that the behaviours that are traditionally associated with female managers - the willingness to consult, to collaborate, or - a behaviour more in demand post financial crisis - to be more risk averse, all create higher levels of trust. 

I am surprised that the YouGov survey revealed that 10 per cent of those asked not only claimed that men make better managers but found it acceptable to express it. Unfortunately, one of the shortcomings of this survey-type research is that we cannot go back to the respondent and ask them why they feel this way, which may unearth more interesting insights. Perhaps some of the respondents had a particularly bruising experience with a female manager and then, instead of focusing the criticism on the individual’s behaviour, decided it was as a result of their gender.

In contrast, I would like to call out those people who think that gender is a component of great leadership. I would be very surprised if, when asked “what do you want from a manager?”, the response “being a man” would be high on the list. Trust flourishes in a safe, friendly, relationship-orientated culture, and 21st century leaders need such positive emotions to help them solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships.

Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and make us more resourceful, open-minded, resilient and motivated. Safe and trusting environments are more enjoyable and creative – altogether more fun places to work. It is not the gender of a manager that will determine whether they can create such an environment.

Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership and Management

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