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Why women are especially skilled at leading during a crisis

Research shows female heads, in particular, are predisposed to lead intuitively and use more communication during fraught periods.

Why women are especially skilled at leading during a crisis
[Photo: fizkes/iStock]
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The pandemic is bringing to light a wellspring of news coverage detailing how women are adversely affected by the virus. From my perspective, women are constantly bombarded by stories that point to ways that women are treated unfairly or are struggling in the workplace, despite how bright the prospects are for female leadership.

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For instance, surveys show, for example, that while 60% of men feel comfortable asking their boss for a day off, only 25% of women feel the same way. This insight is particularly problematic when one considers that typically women are the main caretakers in households, whether it is for children stuck at home with remote learning or an elderly relative battling the coronavirus.

Further, it’s true that women (and especially women of color) are bearing the brunt of the consequences wrought by the pandemic. This is in part due to societal expectations that place caretaking solely in our realm, as well as the fact that females dominate industries most affected by the lockdowns. Regarding this point, according to the Hospitality Industry Pipeline coalition, an estimated 70% of hospitality workers are female.

However, there is also some positive news shedding light on working females. In a pre-pandemic study, a team at Harvard Business Review assessed 60,000 corporate leaders on 19 workplace skills. Interestingly, they found that female leaders consistently scored higher than their male counterparts in 13 of these qualities.

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More surprisingly, when the study was conducted again after the pandemic was in full swing, the gap in which females were leading became even wider. This adds to a theory that female leaders may have unique strengths that are important during a crisis. Here are a handful of reasons why female leadership may give companies a distinct advantage in the future.

Inspirational communicators

The scores that corporate leaders received in different leadership qualities were determined by the people who worked with them. One of the many qualities in which women scored higher than men, according to the HBR study, was described as “inspires others” and “builds relationships” in the workplace.

In fact, female strengths like this are nothing new. Scientific research has indicated that women are better communicators than men, which can lead to an enhanced ability to connect with others, motivate and strengthen teams, and perhaps most importantly, become better leaders. This can be essential not only when dealing with colleagues, employees, and investors, but also in responding to customer needs and protecting a brand’s reputation.

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For example, women use anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 words per day on average, versus a man’s 5,000 to 10,000. In the midst of an ever-evolving crisis, and with the knowledge that communication is one of the most important skills to have for mitigating a crisis in the first place, it’s easy to see why leaders who communicate more may have an advantage.

Unfortunately, the clear leadership strength of enhanced communication is not always rewarded in our society.

For example, studies have shown that female doctors spend more time on average communicating with their patients, yet are paid less because they see fewer patients. The medical industry agrees that attentive and communicative care results in more positive health outcomes, yet it penalizes doctors that spend more time with their patients.

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It’s not just traditional professions such as the medical profession where a lack of appreciation for female qualities is found. Statistics show that only 19% of C-suite executives in the fintech industry and just 3% of venture capitalists are female.

A brain chemistry primed for adaptability

Why are women better communicators than men? It’s possible that it is an innate quality. According to Louann Brizendine in her book The Female Brain, females have 10% more brain cells in an area known as the planum temporale, responsible for understanding and processing language.

After all, workers across numerous industries have rated their female leaders as being able to learn and adapt quicker to change than their male counterparts. And excelling in either of these areas is key for an effective leader, especially one who is heading a company with the aim of maintaining steady revenue growth in spite of a pandemic.

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A quickness to take on new tasks

Furthermore, it’s long been documented that women are better at multitasking than men.  The medical journal BMC Psychology found that women on average were able to switch between different tasks at an 8% greater speed than their male counterparts. The coauthor of the study, Dr. Gijsbert Stoet, noted that the ability to balance multiple tasks and tools is especially relevant in today’s modern digital workplace.

Being able to effectively juggle multiple responsibilities is one of the most important skills for starting and running a small business today, which commonly involves market research, web development, product manufacturing and delivery, marketing, and feedback analysis.

It’s perhaps why we are seeing more female-owned businesses in the United States than we ever have before.

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This isn’t to neglect men or the way they communicate. Despite being less communicative as a whole, men often fill the gap by getting to the point faster in a conversation, which can be interpreted as being more direct and assertive.

But for both businesses and government positions alike, we need leaders who can adapt to change quickly (such as to the ever-changing coronavirus-related health mandates) and process and act upon new data. Women just may be connected to an enhanced ability to adapt and assess new information during a crisis.

It’s still not completely clear why women seem to have these strengths over men, and why studies point to females generally providing superior leadership capabilities in the event of a crisis. One hypothesis points to how women are socialized from a young age to think in a communal way (rather than being individualistic) as seen in traditional portrayals of females being better caretakers. Moreover, it could also be because standards for female leaders are higher than for male leaders. This would certainly explain why female leaders scored higher on 13 out of 19 leadership qualities, according to HBR.

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Whatever the reason, it’s clear that companies can benefit from increased female leadership, especially during increasingly uncertain and trying times.


Nahla Davies is a software engineer and a technical copywriter based in New York.