There are many cliches about the differences between male and female leaders and also no shortage of formal research and personal anecdotes. Although these accounts and observations often correlate, the language typically used to describe male and female leadership also reveals some biases, pointing to the possibility that even supposedly subjective evaluations of this question may be clouded by preconceptions.
For the sake of understanding management, it's important to draw tentative conclusions about the difference between a male and female manager, and it's equally important to proceed with caution and always question assumptions.
Prevailing wisdom holds that male managers are more prone to hierarchical, top-down leadership styles, while female managers are more egalitarian and supportive. However, these are gross generalities that reflect cultural biases, and individual management styles vary dramatically.
- Collaboration vs. individual achievement. Female bosses tend to be focused on collaborative efforts, or bringing together the skills and knowledge of individual team members to build a more successful whole. Male bosses are more likely to reward individual achievement, creating a work environment that puts co-workers in competition with one another.
- Egalitarian vs. hierarchical work structure. In a workplace run by a female boss, voices tend to be heard, and achievements tend to be valued equally. With a male manager, there is more emphasis on the greater knowledge and experience of upper-level managers. The former approach is better for morale and may encourage valuable contributions from unexpected places, while the latter approach is more oriented toward predictable results.
- Transformational vs. transactional. A female leadership style tends to be geared toward supporting the efforts of employees and building their skills so they are able to take on greater levels of responsibility. Male leadership is frequently transactional, breaking down work processes into a series of steps with rewards tied to their completion. Transformational leadership offers the benefit of ongoing learning, while transactional leadership is geared more toward getting the job done.
Although clear trends emerge when describing and comparing the leadership styles of male and female bosses, the very language that is used to describe these managerial approaches emerges from a culture that values and rewards male and female achievements on different terms.
The term "compassionate" is used more frequently to describe a positive character trait in a woman, while the term "analytical" is more frequently used to positively describe male behavior. Because these are subjective terms, it can be problematic to unpack whether these leadership traits are genuinely predominant in one gender or the other or whether they are easier to see because they are expected.
There are no clear and easy answers to these questions, but it is still important to raise them in any discussion of the difference between male and female leaders. Although it is impossible to ever fully step outside of a subjective frame of reference, the act of acknowledging that this subjectivity exists can go a long way toward developing a clearer and more objective picture.
Even if it were possible to fully stand behind the distinctions that are commonly drawn between male and female leadership styles, these differences wouldn't begin to describe the vast continuum of leadership styles among individuals of either gender. There are plenty of men who are compassionate and collaborative leaders just as there are plenty of women leaders who are competitive and even authoritarian.
It could even be argued that a disproportionate number of women leaders exhibit a leadership style more characteristic of men because the very nature of mainstream workplace hierarchies ensures that people of either gender who practice these behaviors tend to rise to the top.