Should a Woman Act More Like a Man to Succeed at Work?

UPDATED: March 8, 2016
PUBLISHED: March 8, 2016

Women make up more than half of the workforce. Yet, less than 20 percent of C-suite executives are women and only 5 percent of CEOs are women. To answer the lack of women in top-ranking leadership roles, scientists at Development Dimensions International (DDI), the global leadership development consultancy, released two gender equality research studies. The first, Ready-Now Leaders: Cultivating Women in Leadership to Meet Tomorrow’s Business Challenges by DDI and The Conference Board, identifies “confidence” as one of the few but significant leadership differences between men and women. The research also provides a snapshot view and analysis of gender diversity across countries and industries. DDI’s High-Resolution Leadership study reviewed true assessment data from 10,000 global leaders and found that men and women are equally qualified in hard- and soft-business skills—with neither gender scoring high.  However, the study did identify three personality differences—inquisitiveness, sensitivity and impulsiveness—between the sexes.

Which raises the question, should a woman act more like a man at work? “The quick answer is no—except when it comes to confidence,” says Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D., DDI CEO. “Women need to do a better job of declaring themselves and becoming their own advocates—speaking and acting confidently and mentally promoting themselves to a future-focused role. With this mindset, our own behaviors change. And, a woman’s impact is strengthened and improves her ability to get that seat at the table.”

Related: 6 Ways Women Are Sabotaging Their Professional Success

Combined findings from the research include: 

Women are less confident and less likely to rate themselves as highly effective leaders compared to men.

Men highly self-rate their own leadership skills and their ability to tackle management and business challenges. Only 30 percent of women rate themselves in the top 10 percent of leaders, in comparison to 37 percent of men. At the senior level, 63 percent of men rate themselves as highly-effective leaders compared to only 49 percent of women. Women were less likely to have completed international assignments, to have led across countries or geographically dispersed teams, all of which make up important development opportunities. Leaders who had access to global and more visible experiences are more likely to advance.

Business drivers comparing men and women yield no significant differences.

These include: Building high-performance cultures; engaging employees; cultivating a customer-focused culture; creating alignment and accountability; enhancing organizational talent; building strategic partnerships and relationships, driving process innovation and driving efficiency. “The reality is we tend to focus too much on differences which are actually few and far between,” says Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., DDI Senior Vice President and study co-author. “The disparity in gender diversity has little to do with competence levels.”

Considerable personality gaps exist between the sexes in inquisitiveness, sensitivity and impulsiveness.

The research shows that men are 16 percent more inquisitive than women, possibly due to their tendency to gravitate towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers that reinforce inquiry. Women are interpersonally more sensitive than men (13 percent more), which can be an advantage in cultures where leaders are valued for demeanor and interactions with others. Men also score as more impulsive than women (11 percent more) which could result from the reinforced “just do it” attitude where women are nurtured with the outlook “don’t do it unless you can do it right.”

Related: Education & Experience Don’t Guarantee Success—Attitude & Habits Do

Organizations with a greater percentage of women in leadership roles perform better financially.

Organizations in the top 20 percent of financial performers have 37 percent of their leaders as women. “When it comes to leadership, gender shouldn’t be an issue, but it is—a business issue,” says Byham. “Encouraging gender diversity in leadership ranks leads to more diversity of thought prompting improved problem-solving and increased business benefits.” Organizations with women in at least 30 percent of leadership roles are 12 times more likely to be in the top 20 percent of financial performers. Organizations in the bottom 20 percent have only 19 percent of their leaders as women. “DDI research shows that when women occupy top leadership spots it pays dividends to the bottom-line in the form of increased revenue and profits,” says Byham.

The U.S. has the fourth highest percentage of women leaders, globally.  

Globally, women comprise a lower proportion of leadership roles than their workforce presence, falling short of men by 20 percent. DDI’s Ready-Now Leaders: Cultivating Women in Leadership to Meet Tomorrow’s Business Challenges survey asked 1,528 global HR executives to provide the percentage of their organizations’ female leaders. The Philippines placed first with 51 percent, followed by Thailand at 39 percent. Canada took third place at 37 percent with the U.S. in fourth place with 36 percent. Increasing gender diversity has become an economic priority in countries such as Japan that placed last with 10 percent of its leaders as women. With an increase in Japan’s female employment rate, the country’s workforce would expand by more than eight million people—and its GDP would grow by as much as 13 percent, according to Womenomics 4.0: Time to Walk the Talk. Cultural and socioeconomic factors impact the role of women in the workplace. Australia and German are addressing these shortages with legal quotas—further evidence that the need for gender diversity has far greater implications beyond business practices. Whether government intervention impacts these numbers, the data indicates that businesses with a sufficient supply of women leaders will continue to be more competitive.

The lowest number of women in leadership roles are in the consumer products, transportation services, computer software, technology, chemicals, energy and utilities, construction, industrial manufacturing and automotive and transport industries (15 to 30 percent of leaders are women).

Industries with the highest have more female-dominated workforces and include health care, education and retail industries (43 to 47 percent of leaders are women). Industries with a moderate representation of women leaders include: food, banking and telecommunications services. The number of women employed and leading in an industry influences the opportunities for women to advance and develop and has implications for the future. Industries with shortages of women in leadership suffer due to fewer role models and mentors to provide encouragement and guidance to encourage younger generations into leadership roles.

Want more women in leadership roles? Implement these seven practices shown to make a difference driving diversity.

“But remember, to be successful, happy, and fulfilled at work and in life, it’s less about acting more like a man or more like a woman,” says Byham. “It is about becoming a best-ever version of yourself.”

1. Make sure your leaders have high-quality development plans.
2. Implement a formal process for identifying global/multinational leaders.
3. Give managers who fail to develop their leaders a negative consequence.
4. Ensure that an up-to-date status of leadership talent capability across the organization is available.
5. Use validation tests and simulations for making leadership promotion and selection decisions to prevent bias.
6. Incorporate formal programs to ensure smooth leadership transitions at all levels. (Female representation tends to be greater at lower levels.)
7. Provide time for leaders to practice key skills with their managers and receive feedback.

Related: What It Takes to Be a Remarkable Leader

Rich Wellins, Ph.D., is a Development Dimensions International (DDI) Senior Vice President and head of research. He has written six books on leadership, including his new book with co-author Tacy Byham, Your First Leadership Job, and has spoken around the world. His work has been featured in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company. He also serves as a judge for CNBC's Asian Business Leaders Awards. Rich is a co-author of DDI’s High-Resolution Leadership assessment research report.