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Strong Female Lead

How Women Leaders Emerge From Leaderless Groups

Women are more likely to take command in collaborative work environments—including those that are predominantly male.

How Women Leaders Emerge From Leaderless Groups

[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

In spite of a significant imbalance between male and female leaders in business, new research from the University at Buffalo's School of Management suggests that in collaborative work environments where women are outnumbered, they often emerge as the natural group leader.

The findings fly in the face of the reality of the U.S. workforce, where many fail to recognize the extent of the female leadership gap. Women represent just 3% of new CEOs in the U.S., 5.1% of Fortune 1000 CEOs, and 4% of Standard and Poor’s 500 CEOs. A recent survey by the Rockefeller Foundation also found that nine in 10 respondents thought there were more female business leaders than there really are, and further research by the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University found that those women are more likely to be targeted by shareholder activism.

"We tend to see the man as more leader-like than the woman," says lead author Jim Lemoine, in a video interview by UB School of Management. "What we were interested in in this research were exceptions to the rule."

In the study, researchers assigned nearly 1,000 participants to small groups and asked them to complete a series of tasks, later polling them on who emerged as the natural leader of their group. The study was replicated with participants of varying ages over both long and short-term periods.

When the groups communicated a lot, or were more "extroverted" in Lemoine’s words, women were more likely to emerge as leaders. They were also more likely to emerge as leaders when the groups were predominantly male.

"When a group is composed of lots of extroverted people, they talk more," he says. "They’re actually getting to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and who may be the better leader beyond this diversity demographics stuff."

This getting-to-know-each-other phase is key to gender leadership balance, says Lemoine. "It makes the environment less masculine, more balanced, and gives everyone a chance to play on equal footing," he says.

Lemoine adds that when he advises companies, he often encourages them to ignore strategy talk at first and instead spend some time getting to know the other people in the room.

"When we think of men, we think independent, aggressive, competitive risk takers, which is for a lot of people a stereotypical view of a leader," he says. "When we think of women, we tend to think—true or not—more helpful, more cooperative, more caring."

Lemoine explains that in spite of centuries of gender imbalance, he finally sees the tide beginning to turn in favor of female leaders. That is because when people are asked what kind of leader they want to work for today, the typical answer has evolved to describe stereotypically female characteristics. As he puts it:

People tend to answer this more now, ‘I would like to work for someone who is ethical,’ ‘I would like to work for someone who really cares about me, who understands me, who trains me, who puts me first, who’s very authentic. As our ideas of what a leader is changes, so do our ideas change of who a leader can be, so really the future is looking bright for more gender equality for who becomes a leader.

In other words, one of the key strategies for breaking the gender leadership gap in the workplace could be simple conversation between team members, in a setting that gives every member of the team a level playing field.

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