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Are Women CEOs Handling the Current Crisis Differently Than Their Male Counterparts?

Cate Luzio

Do men make better leaders than women, or do women make better leaders than men? While this topic has been studied closely for decades, I think the question itself is flawed. We should be focused on how effective leaders are, their competencies and demystifying the cultural biases that exist in order to make better companies and better teams. As presented in research by Harvard Business Review, women scored statistically higher than men on the vast majority of leadership competencies that were measured.  Women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results and displaying high integrity and honesty.

As we consider how leaders are managing through the current pandemic, pointing to examples such as women heads of state for Germany, New Zealand and Iceland, and how well their countries have fared in comparison to their male counterparts, the question arises: Are women leaders handling this crisis differently than men?

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According to Mindy Grossman, president and CEO of WW (formerly Weight Watchers), “It is clear that no matter what the gender, the leader’s leadership style—how they communicate, how they strike a balance of strong yet vulnerable, how transparent they can be—will be the ultimate differentiator during any difficult situation.” There is still unconscious bias and a perception that showing vulnerability is a trait in female leadership which can be construed as a weakness, likely because we have a less diverse group of voices around the table. Grossman further mentions that “it is a given that any leader, regardless of gender, is going to face challenges. I believe that the challenge is less about being a woman than others’ perception of your leadership, and while things have improved, oftentimes you might be the only woman in the room.”

There is still a perception that women negotiate poorly, lack confidence, are too risk-averse or do not put in the hours. In addition, women are looked at as more caring and mission-driven. These can be framed as both a barrier or a benefit; however, when given opportunities, women are just as likely to succeed and thrive as leaders as men. Jolie Hunt, founder and CEO of Hunt & Gather, a global high-touch marketing and communications agency, stresses: “Women are leading. They are unafraid to walk into paths unknown because they have had to do it to get where they are.”

No leadership behavior is inherently gendered, it is developed over time. Yet, according to Gloria Feldt, cofounder and CEO of Take The Lead, a national nonprofit/social profit organization, which prepares women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025, “the implicit bias and discrimination women have endured, has, I believe—and I know it’s a bit radical—acculturated superpowers into our thinking and behavior. [As women], our leadership styles tend to be more acutely aware of the human side of events more than economic factors.” In that same HBR study, women leaders were thought to be more effective in 84 percent of the competencies that are most frequently measured. These include collaboration and teamwork, leadership speed, inspiration and motivation, and the ability to connect to the outside world.

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Women tend to leverage a more open dialogue and transparent communication approach along with empathy for their teams as well as their customers. “Women are acting on instinct. On the whole, I feel women understand the implications of their decisions, and they are acting much more swiftly. We are willing to sacrifice our pride to ask for help, to lean on network[s] and to be vulnerable to ensure we are open to all possibilities,” Hunt says. Grossman adds that “kindness and generosity are not only helpful, they can be unifying and motivating, and may even help alleviate anxiety—this is an area where women leaders could exemplify more, especially in a time of crisis.”

For some, vulnerability in a CEO is still viewed as a weakness. However, the days when CEOs could pretend they knew everything are over. Crisis can expose weaknesses as well as highlight strengths. Empathy is the new omniscient. “Being vulnerable and strong are not opposites, they are one and the same. Striking the right balance of emotional openness and being strong for your team is a balance; however, realness is what people are craving right now,” Grossman says. Hunt adds that “this is a time for empathy. Women are more hard-wired to have EQ with our IQ, and this moment has allowed for what has historically been viewed as softer or more human, to not only be welcome but needed.”

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Hunt maintains that “people want reassurance, but they also want a warrior. I’m leading my company with candor and bravery, communicating often and clearly with my team.” Feldt agrees, “leadership always involves having to make choices from imperfect solutions with limited resources and usually less than enough information. In a crisis, it is even more difficult. Women need to exercise the confidence and courage to take action and own it. The more one exercises those muscles, the stronger one gets.”

We continue to create damaging narratives about women and their leadership rather than shifting our focus to how we can support women leaders to thrive, so everyone thrives. According to Grossman, “vulnerability in leadership is not a weakness but a strength, and today that has never been truer.” Good leadership isn’t gender specific, it’s just good leadership.

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