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When it comes to leadership, gender differences are more a matter of talk than action, study finds

August 1, 2003

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Do women lead differently than men? As women have increasingly joined the ranks of management during the past three decades, a great deal has been written about how they differ from men in leadership styles. For example, women have been associated with a less bureaucratic approach to management than men and with employee policies that are more accommodating and sensitive to individual needs.

Are such supposed differences real or do they merely reflect traditional gender stereotypes?

While there is no shortage of opinions on both sides of the question, a new study, presented at the 2003 annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Seattle, August 3-6), approaches the issue in a way that makes its findings particularly persuasive. The study focuses entirely on business owners, who are free to manage as they see fit, rather than on middle managers, who may be constrained by corporate policies.

The owners' autonomy notwithstanding, the study finds no significant difference between male and female executive leadership.

In the words of the authors, Jennifer E. Cliff of the University of Alberta, Nancy Langton of the University of British Columbia, and Howard E. Aldrich of the University of North Carolina, the findings "challenge the gender-stereotypic argument that leader sex plays an important role when it comes to organizational design and management."

But, although the study finds gender-based management styles to be illusory, it also uncovers a logical reason for people to consider them real: the business owners themselves talk as if they're real.

As the authors put it: "Male and female owners tend to use different -- and gender-stereotypic -- rhetoric to describe their approaches to business. The female owners were significantly more likely than the male owners to describe their desired relationship with employees in stereotypically feminine terms, revealing the view that organizational leaders should be responsive to and empower the personal growth of their subordinates...The male owners were significantly more likely than the female owners to describe their desired relationship with employees in stereotypically masculine terms, expressing the view that organizational leaders should command and control their subordinates to achieve measurable results for the firm."

The study is based on interviews with 141 male and 88 female owners of privately held firms with anywhere from six to 325 employees in a mid-sized North American city. Companies could not be franchises, branches or subsidiaries of other firms and had to be managed by at least one of the primary owners.

Two measures were used to assess the extent of a firm's bureaucracy: 1) the number of levels between direct workers and the primary active owner and 2) the number of employee-related forms used by the company, such as written job descriptions and personnel records, organization charts, formal performance appraisals, and written discipline and grievance policies.

Sensitivity to employees' individual differences and needs was also assessed by two measures: 1) the availability of extended maternity leaves, flexible work hours, personal loans, and compensation based on individual need; and 2) practices reflecting concern for quality of interpersonal relationships, such as hiring on the basis of interpersonal fit, avoiding direct confrontations when disciplining, and striving to minimize bad feelings when disciplining.

The study controlled for a number of factors that may affect bureaucracy and sensitivity to employees' individual needs, such as firm size, firm age, and growth strategy.

Owner gender had no significant effect on either the size of firms' bureaucracies or the sensitivity or accommodating nature of employee policies. Neither were these affected by the amount of female ownership in a firm's industry, the proportion of female workers in a firm, or the status of female owners as original company founders.

Seeking to account for the lack of gender effects, the authors find evidence to support the view of a number of scholars that management has become increasingly feminized, as organizational experts move away from traditional command-and-control notions of executive leadership. "Rather than conforming primarily to the masculine model of organizing," the authors note, "it appears that both male and female owners manage their firms with a mix of masculine and feminine approaches."

Still, they add, if men and women converge when it comes to management practice, they diverge in how they talk about it. For example, asked how they wanted employees to think of them, 26 percent of the male owners but only five percent of the women wished to be thought of as an authority figure rather than as an enabler or good team leader. In contrast, 36 percent of the women owners but only 22 percent of the men said they wanted to be thought of as a servant, coach or colleague who empowers others.

The Academy of Management, founded in 1936, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has over 13,000 members in 90 countries, including some 9,000 in the United States. The academy's 2003 annual meeting, drew some 6,000 scholars and practitioners to Seattle for more than 1,000 sessions on a host of issues relating to corporate organization, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related subjects.

Media Coverage:
National Post. Female executives not so different: study; collaborative style more concept than reality. (Monday, August 11, 2003).
The Economist. The trouble with women: Why so few of them are running big companies. (Saturday, October 25, 2003).
The News & Observer. Survey of Small Business Owners Indicates Women Aren't Nicer Bosses. (Monday, August 25, 2003).

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