Categorized | Workplace

Gender in Management: Women or Man?

Posted on 31 May 2011

Who Put the “Man” in Manager?

Great leadership demands gender-neutral skills.

Do women make better managers than men? Are we beyond the stage when we should even be posing this question? Touching on gender stereotypes that persist in the workplace, this is the kind of debate that makes employers squirm.

Indeed, many women entering the ranks of management still face criticism on opposing fronts: Either they are presumed to be “too feminine” for effective leadership, or they are denigrated for more “masculine” behavior. (Just think of some of the criticism heaped on former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.) And while recent studies give high marks to women as managers, some see these studies as creating stereotypes of their own.

Of course, in the workaday world, many employees say it’s really a manager’s competency, and not gender, that’s significant.

Subordinates say their main concern is not the gender of their boss, but their management style.

Studies Back Women Managers

A number of studies in recent years have proclaimed women as the better managers. The most comprehensive—by Michigan-based Lawrence A. Pfaff and Associates in 1999—showed 2,400 managers rating women above men in 17 out of 20 skill areas. Another, by the California-based Hagberg Consulting Group, had more than 400 executives rank women above men in more than 80 percent of skills. In these and other studies, women scored well in areas such as mentoring, productivity, and decisiveness. They were also noted for a gentler touch in dealing with work issues, in contrast to the allegedly more autocratic style of men.

Yet subordinates say their main concern is not the gender of their boss, but their style. “My current boss is fantastic,” says Kelly Thomas, who works in the publications division of a scientific society in Philadelphia, “but the qualities that make her great aren’t necessarily related to her sex: knowledge of both the type of work and people management, flexibility, and sense of humor.”

Ironically, Thomas’ only concern about working in a female-dominated business like publishing is that she has seen something of an “old girl” network. “If you aren’t part of that loop,” she says, “you could lose out professionally.”

Ability Unrelated to Gender

Ida Byrd, a senior specialist at a major New York City insurance brokerage, agrees that gender does not matter as much as individual management skills. “I’m not sure that what makes a good manager is as much learned as it is a natural ability to lead people, while being compassionate and self-assured all at the same time.”

Her current boss is a woman who “asks questions about what we do, and then actually listens to our responses, even taking notes when necessary.” But clearly not every person is suited for management. At a law firm in Boston, where Byrd was formerly a legal secretary, her office manager had a confidence problem and “frequently looked as though she might burst into tears at any time,” Byrd recalls. “If she was an effective manager, it was only because those of us who were under her felt sorry for her.”

Dropping the Neo-Stereotypes

Sheila Reines is a senior human resources officer at the Washington, D.C.-headquartered World Bank, which has implemented successful internal programs to push women into higher management positions. She confirms that looking through gender-tinted spectacles is no longer considered helpful.

Reines says that in the mid-1990s studies identified the “unique” characteristics that women bring to work in general and to management in particular. Many of the qualities attributed to women—for example, a more holistic approach to problems, better listening, and teamwork skills—were those identified as key to the World Bank’s becoming a more effective development institution.

“However, we moved away from attributing these characteristics to women,” she continues. “Doing so created a new form of stereotyping, implying that all women possessed these characteristics. By extension, it created expectations that women would be responsible for these behaviors. And it subtly suggested the creation of a new ‘sell’ for women—that is, it’s not enough that they are excellent economists, they also need to be good listeners.”

Most of all, though, she says the bank wanted to show that it didn’t matter whether women or men demonstrated these behaviors. “The key,” she concludes, “was to value and nurture them in all staff, as business assets.”


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3 Comments For This Post

  1. John Groth says:

    If only we could judge a manager like auditions for a local symphony orchestra.
    The artist plays behind a screen and each is given a number. The panel doing the selecting has no idea of age or gender, it’s all based on performance.

    However, in managing a group or a process there are so many variables in judging the accomplishments we may never get to the ideal.

    Your point on carrying a manager. Worked for a VP had five direct reports. We covered for him so much he got promoted. New operation did not cover for him and he lasted less than one year.

  2. starr says:

    I have worked for both men and women managers…some great…others not so great. I agree that ability is not related to gender. However, I have never been in a situation where the employees were fortunate enough to select their own manager. I wonder how that would play out?

  3. Frank Maassen says:

    Hello, it is not about man or woman. It is about quality or better capacity and using it optimal and balanced! I think many of us lack a holistic view to improve their quality of life and focus on man or woman issues. One should not focus on carreer, sports, relation, family, religion, etc in isolation.The trick is about to pay equal attention to all aspects of life.

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