Do women make better leaders than men?

Psychologists, women entrepreneurs, their male counterparts, and a human resources expert weigh in.

29 April, 2024
Do women make better leaders than men?

I’ve grown up in two worlds. There’s the world of fiction, doting on the likes of perfectly imperfect leaders and ambitious women like Barbie, Jessica Pearson, and Andy Sachs, wanting to be them every step of the way and aghast yet mesmerised by the portrayal of characters like Miranda Priestly. I’ve also grown up in a world vastly different from the make-believe one of Indra Nooyis, Jacinda Ardens, and Michelle Obamas—female leaders whose journeys have challenged age-old stereotypes. While the fictional world brought me solace and inspiration, things are only now seeming to add up in the real world.

I, like several others, saw an evident gap in the number of women in leadership positions across industries, until Falguni Nayar of Nykaa, Divya Gokulnath of Byju’s, and Vineeta Singh of SUGAR Cosmetics took the world by storm we just aren’t sure if it is enough. We also saw the perpetuation of the horrible female boss stereotype and an unlevelled playing field for men and women. Despite science’s best efforts to prove that women can make better leaders than men, we took it upon us to understand why the problem still persists and discover whether women actually make better leaders than men. 

Where are the women? 

Think of Jessica Pearson from Suits (2011), Jagruti Pathak from Scoop (2023), or Ayesha Mehra from Dil Dhadakne Do (2015 the characters I refer to here were the one-offs the ones that made it to the top. But barring a few sectors, women continue to navigate through a lopsided, male-dominated labour force. In India, as of 2022, only 30% of leadership positions are occupied by women in the education sector* and this ranks the highest among seven other major sectors. Globally, women accounted for only 10.4% of leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies. Here’s why. 

“Our pipeline is leaking. No one is reaching the top. The female labour force participation rate in India is very low (37% as per the Ministry of Statistics, 2023) and women, therefore, do not end up even reaching senior positions, says Aditi Gupta, co-founder of Menstrupedia (a comic book created to build awareness around menstruation). “A large, predominant mindset in India is that a girl’s earning is secondary in the family. One in every two women drop out of the workforce as soon as she becomes a mother so automatically there is a 50% decrease in senior positions occupied by women**. I had my first child when I was 33 and my second child at 38, and unfortunately or fortunately, it is at this time in your career that you’re at a very senior level and this is exactly when women drop out—it’s a huge economic loss to the country. In my experience, it is also seen that women don’t find it safe to travel within places—so where there is better infrastructure, you will see more women being hired.”

According to psychologist and co-founder of Emoneeds, Dr Neerja Agarwal, “The underrepresentation of women in top leadership positions across industries can be attributed to systemic biases, societal norms, and structural barriers. Despite advancements in gender equality, deeply ingrained stereotypes and cultural expectations often hinder women’s progression into leadership roles.” The statistics from the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Report highlight this disparity, with women holding only 15.9% of board positions and a mere 8.9% of top management positions in Indian firms.

“From an HR perspective, we can also talk about politics and policies internally-one of the most important issues that has persisted is the glass ceiling—invisible barriers that have always stopped women from climbing the corporate ladder—the way promotions and appraisals happen, policies for promotions, which are not flexible or are not created in a way feasible for women—because it sort of goes back to the initial problem that women are also expected to have a far more domesticated role. So, how those companies deal with it is also important,” says Unnati Anam, founder of Unnati Anam Consultancy.

The difference in work cultures makes us wish we were the men (not) 

The Man by Taylor Swift plays on a loop. When you’re a woman in a senior position at a company or the founder of your own, you’re often met with a different vocabulary than your male counterpart—you’re ‘too soft,’ you’re ‘manipulative not strategic,’ you’re ‘an overreactor’. You are victim to silent-yet-blatant judgments on your leadership style, the work culture you promote, and more. 

“I’ve had experience working under a female boss, and she was incredibly ambitious, even more so than the men at her level,” says Shalu Mitruka, co-founder of Growthpal, an M&A deal sourcing platform. She adds, “I was impressed by how well she balanced everything. Despite having two kids, she handled multiple projects, took her kids to school, managed household chores, and still found time to tuck her kids into bed. What stood out the most was her understanding of the daily challenges that women face, which others might not even notice.”

Gupta shares, “I have worked with male and female bosses and here is the difference: I found my female boss to be extremely particular about time. She would come exactly at 10 and leave at six, and she was taunted for it. She would work round the clock and her approach was not respected at all—because it compelled her team to work in the same manner. When I worked with male bosses—amazing as they were—they could stay back at the office for an entire night, go out with the team, and network over drinks without a care in the world. I’m not saying that they were not working as hard as women, but women did not have the liberty to do these things because of social obligations. Men staying late and working through the night was rewarded—women and men do not have a level playing ground.” “The difference in work culture is that they are very particular and systematic, whereas men are more easy-going. Women want to keep things disciplined and systematic,” says Sairaj Dhond, founder of Wakao Foods—a Goabased sustainable food brand that made an appearance on Shark Tank India season 3.

Yushika Jolly, founder, and CEO of Paradyes—India’s first semipermanent hair colour brand shares her own experiences and challenges of being a female boss in a male-dominated world: “Since Paradyes also has its manufacturing unit, one of the biggest challenges I faced was being taken seriously on the shopfloor, at the factory. The workers would always take my partner, Siddharth, more seriously and his command would be the final say. I was always the less important person in the room.” “When I started, I was often asked where my husband or father was—people didn’t take me seriously or the fact that I was the owner of the business,” says Pooja Dhingra, founder of Le 15.

We delved deeper into the peculiarities of the problem by understanding the psychology behind it. “It’s important to acknowledge that individuals, regardless of gender, can exhibit great leadership qualities. That said, certain behaviour patterns associated with different leadership styles are shaped unconsciously by gender norms and societal expectations. For instance, traditional masculine leadership styles may prioritise assertiveness, competitiveness, and autonomy, while feminine leadership styles may emphasise on collaboration, empathy, and relationship-building,” says Dr Agarwal. “However, neither style is fundamentally better than the other. Effective leadership relies on a combination of traits found in both men and women,” adds counselling psychologist Diksha Singh.

“Ninety per cent of my work experience has been working under a female leader. I‘ve always liked how they take that additional effort to make someone feel comfortable. Even from an HR perspective, when someone has a family issue and wants to take a leave, how a woman goes about it is so different—they tend to understand work-life balance a lot better. I have always enjoyed working under women leaders because it sort of expands your emotional quotient a lot more, and enables a holistic and sustainable development of an employee,” says Anam.

You don’t have a bit**y female boss. You just have a bad boss

Think Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada—for she is the complete personification of the stereotype. Yet, it’s one we should be wary of. The horrible female boss stereotype has existed for a long time now and is triggered by various patterns often associated only with being a woman. Jill Filipovic explains in her piece for The Guardian, “Even among ostensibly liberal, equality supporting people, “that one horrible female boss I had” is a staple story in the work-and-gender debates...And it is not a story that people are just making up—lots of us have had female bosses who are less than stellar...” The problem isn’t the fact that some female bosses suck, it is that if you have a bad boss and he’s a man, the conclusion is “I had a crappy boss”. Filipovic adds: “No one sees a bad male boss as a reflection of all men everywhere, or emblematic of male leadership capabilities. But bring up women at the head of the table and every bad female co-worker or supervisor suddenly becomes Exhibit A for what’s wrong with female bosses.”

According to Dr Agarwal, “The stereotype of the “horrible female boss” often unfairly portrays women in leadership positions as overly aggressive, demanding, or difficult to work with, reflecting entrenched societal biases and perceptions about gender and authority. Such stereotypes can hinder women’s career progression by subjecting them to unfair judgments and increased scrutiny, limiting their opportunities for leadership roles.”

Do women make better leaders than men?
Credits: Getty Images

Gupta adds, “When our team was very small, my only thought was that I wanted to be loved by everyone. I had to get over the perception myself. If I wanted to get work done, I had to allow myself to be strict and assertive. But I have seen that I have to take more effort coming across as a nice person, as a transparent person— whereas Tuhin [her partner, and co-founder] does not have to put in as much effort.” Jolly mentions, “Women have to be extra careful about not coming across as too tough or they’ll just get labelled as the mean boss. I feel it’s a very tricky line to walk, but I am all for breaking that stereotype.” 

Do women actually make better leaders than men?

Think Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and I promise you’ll have your answer. Psst, in case you couldn’t tell—women definitely make better leaders than men—in my opinion anyway. But we also have science to prove it for you. According to a research study undertaken by the Leadership Circle in 2022, female leaders show up more effectively than their male counterparts across every management level and age level. The study is based on evaluations with over 84,000 leaders and 1.5 million raters and shows that women rank significantly higher on all five criteria: relating, self-awareness, authenticity, systems awareness, and achieving. The typical female leader scores higher on effectiveness than 52% of all leaders, whereas the typical male leader scores higher than only 43% of all leaders. 

Here’s the hot take.

“When research suggests that women make better leaders in leadership domains, it’s not to downplay men, but rather to reinforce the notion that women are equally capable of occupying these positions,” says Dr Agarwal, adding, “Advocating for equal opportunities isn’t about competing against men; it’s about levelling the playing field and providing women with the resources and support they need to thrive.” “Leaders are not just those who do their work, they’re also the ones who steer the ship and move it forward while knowing their team inside out. They must have skills like keeping the team united, motivating them, showing them the bigger picture, and making them feel like part of the family. Women have natural strengths that align well with these leadership skills,” says Mitruka.  

“Certain decisions that require a tad bit of emotion and humane touchpoints are made by women much better than by men,” opines Dhond. Some others, however, disagree with the notion that women can make better leaders. “I run my company with a co-founder, and I see the magic happen when men and women work together to their fullest potential,” says Gupta. “Leadership has nothing to do with our sex. A lot of women who could be great leaders don’t get the opportunity and scores of men who aren’t the best fit for the job often get leadership roles,” adds Purbali Mukherjee, an associate creative director at Ogilvy India.

Anam shares, “Leadership is skill-based and irrespective of gender. Gender is not supposed to define whether you make a good leader, it is about the aforementioned skills. Of course, one of the key things that we know about women is that we tend to read a situation more holistically.” I believe women can bring to the table what no one else can—a winning mindset, the perfect amount of empathy, and an unbelievable vision. All they need is to, “Go in there with the confidence of an incredibly average white man.” Or so said Sutton Brady from The Bold Type (2017). She may be right. But that’s certainly not all that can be done. Paving the path for more women to work their way to the top, without the barriers they currently face, will require a change in mindset, and a keen effort by all those involved—the family, the partner, the type A male boss, the policymakers and even the recruiters. 

*Statista, 2024
**Predicament of Returning Mothers
Report, Ashoka University

Feature Illustration Credits: Muskan Sehgal

This article originally appeared in Cosmopolitan March-April 2024 print edition

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