The Gender Divide And The Traits Of Effective Leadership: Who Comes Out On Top?

In the raft of research on all the reasons why female leaders lag behind their male counterparts, we polled the experts to find out what essential skills are needed to successfully be in command, and how they play out for both genders.

The Gender Divide And The Traits Of Effective Leadership: Who Comes Out On Top?
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Focused. Decisive. Engaging. Fearless. Traditionally, these and other qualities are synonymous with leadership. And just as often, when such a trait is displayed by a man, it’s seen as a plus. When it’s a woman, not so much.


Consider the adjectives used to describe Jill Abramson. Recently ousted from her perch as the first female executive editor of the New York Times, Abramson’s been accused of being pushy, brusque, and stubborn. Let’s not forget that while some colleagues also considered her intimidating, her effectiveness was clear. Abramson presided over a staff that won eight Pulitzer Prizes in less than four years and is credited with shepherding old school journalism into a digitally dynamic era of reporting.

While the reasons for Abramson’s dismissal are still clouded in speculation, her experience illustrates the rub for female leaders. As people of either gender, we are predisposed to “role congruity.” Research suggests the primitive part of our brain is thrown into conflict when confronted by a woman in charge–which may result in a flip of the adjective from assertive to pushy. More murky is the new meta analysis that shows that coworkers are more likely to rate their female leaders as more effective than the women in charge were rating themselves.

With the confidence gap persisting, leadership psychologist Dr. Anne Perschel, observes that the the definition and practice of great leadership has evolved. “In earlier times, desired and desirable leadership traits were synonymous with masculine stereotypes, such as dominant, aggressive, commanding, controlling, ambitious, and individualistic,” says the president of Germane Consulting and cofounder of 3Plus International.

She cites the work of Leadership author James MacGregor Burns, who wrote:“The male bias is reflected in a false conception of leadership as mere command and control. As leadership comes properly to be seen as a process of leaders engaging and mobilizing the human needs and aspirations of followers, women will be more readily recognized as leaders and men will change their own leadership styles.”

As his book was written in 1978, Perschel says, “Burns was ahead of his time.” Looking at leadership now, we asked some career and workplace experts how they view the qualities essential to successful authority.



Phyllis Mufson, career coach

“Men seem to have an easier time talking about their achievements, particularly to higher ups–an important skill. I’ve worked with several executive women who were very confident in their abilities to do their jobs, but resistant to ‘tooting their own horn,’ afraid of bragging, being seen as pushy or not a team player, or standing out in a way that might invite envy,” she says.

“Sharing your achievements with pride promotes your best assets–you and your work. It boosts your influence while educating people about your capability,” Mufson says, “You’ve crossed the line into bragging when you use over-blown adjectives to describe yourself and your accomplishments and when you’ve lost mutuality. You’re only concerned with yourself.”


Piera Palazzolo, senior vice president of marketing at Dale Carnegie Training

“One of Dale Carnegie’s key principles says, “Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” This is an essential trait for leaders to have in the workplace in order to keep their employees engaged. But men and women differ in the value they place on praising employees and receiving admiration themselves,” she says. 


Palazzolo says that a recent study conducted at Dale Carnegie that focused on employee engagement and gender found that the greatest gap is in the emotional attributes between men and women. “Specifically, a significant gender difference was revealed when asked about the importance of praise and recognition for a job well done being a common practice at a company,” she says.

“Forty eight percent of female employees felt it was valuable versus a much lower 25% of male employees, showing how the importance of praise/positive reinforcement in the workplace is valued differently by genders.”


Bob Pozen, visiting senior leturer of Maximizing Your Personal Productivity at MIT Sloan Executive Education
“One key to becoming an effective leader is learning to delegate well. This is how you get your team to carry out goals that are no longer your top priorities. Women have been found to be more effective delegators than men, on average. They are typically more sensitive to team dynamics at work, and less authoritarian than their male counterparts, both important qualities when delegating tasks.”


Kevin Eikenberry, leadership author, speaker, and trainer

“People want to follow people that they know, like, and trust,” says Eikenberry. But there is a difference between being likeable and having a goal to be liked. He says both men and women can err on the side of trying to be liked, which leads to making bad decisions.


Pointing out that it’s difficult for him to speak to the way women approach likeability because he’s a man, Eikenberry says, “Maybe, women in some cases, feel like they have to work a little harder and that could be misinterpreted.”

For either gender, he says, “If your stated or subconscious goal is to get them to like me, that’s the wrong goal. The right goal is to be likable, be engaging, to care about people, and yet not really care if they like you. because you are going to have to make some tough decisions.”


Anne Perschel, leadership psychologist

Perschel polled over 50 senior executives to ask if female leaders are changing the practice of great leadership. While the answer was “a solid yes,” the executives observed that women lagged behind men when it came to decisiveness. “The central issue may have less to do with women’s decision-making abilities than their readiness to run with a decision in the face of less than 80% confidence,” she says.

Perschel says the men who participated in her research noted how effective women were when they practiced collaboration, emotional intelligence, inclusiveness, support for others, and relied on intuitive, as well as rational, thinking.


“As a result, many of the men have incorporated these competencies into their leadership repertoires, just as Burns predicted,” she says. “All participants stated that these same leadership attributes are critical for success in the 21st-century business environment.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.