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Home > Research Articles > Women Exemplify More Effective Leadership Style, Study Finds

Chicago Tribune

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Chicago Tribune - August 09, 2003

CHICAGO - Women make the better bosses, according to a new and exhaustive study certain to sway absolutely nobody who has an opinion on which sex is the superior supervisor.

Some might observe that the fact that women are better managers will come as news only to about half the population.

Though the difference in each category the researchers examined was small, women indeed scored better almost across the board. Men still dominate the executive suite, but it is women who exemplify a more effective leadership style, according to a new, far-reaching study.

While the "who makes the better boss" debate has simmered for some time - both in scientific journals as well in intra-office e-mails - the latest entry from academia gives women the higher marks, according to Alice Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, and two colleagues. The researchers scrutinized 45 other studies conducted between 1985 and 2002 that zeroed in on whether the sexes manage differently - and, if so, who gets better results.

The verdict? Females are more likely to serve as role models, mentor subordinates and encourage creativity than their male counterparts, according to the study, published in the current Psychological Bulletin.

"Women came out quite well," explained Eagly, adding that this is the first time such a comprehensive study has been undertaken. "It's more than merely being collaborative. It's everything."

The findings beg the question: Why aren't women breaking into the upper tier of corporate America?

"The evidence suggests that women should be rising at least as fast as men - if not faster - and that's just not happening." Indeed, 30 years after women started moving into the work force in record numbers, the number who have climbed the ladder is barely measurable. Only 6 percent of the Fortune 500's top jobs - senior vice president and above - are held by women.

Some believe that dissecting the differences between men and women is divisive and, ultimately, not very instructive.

"Aren't we a little beyond this?" asked an annoyed Janelle Taylor, an administrative assistant for a downtown brokerage firm. "Wretched bosses can be found in both sexes."

But the researchers found the differences undeniable, said Eagly, whose co-investigators included Mary C. Johannesen-Schmidt and Marloes L. van Engen, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Specifically, female executives were more likely to be "transformational" leaders - defined as those who mentor, inspire and foster innovation and teamwork - the kind of skills that have been shown to strengthen contemporary organizations.

In contrast, men were more "transactional" - appealing to subordinates' self-interest and using reward and punishment as incentives.

The researchers also looked at a third category, called "laissez-faire" style, which is managing by not managing - another category dominated by men.

None of this surprises Jack Zimmerman, 58, manager of subscription services at the Lyric Opera. Over the years, he has worked for four women - all of whom rate an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

"My female bosses have always been very supportive and non-competitive," he said. "When I did something good they were just as happy as I was. They were like a cheering section."

His lone experience reporting to a man, however, was less harmonious. "He was extremely controlling. No matter what I did, he found the flaw. It sapped my will to be creative and open."

Of course, dumping on the boss is a time-honored tradition. And painting with such a broad brush can be patently unfair. But many men didn't dispute the findings.

"You needed a study to tell you that?" scoffed Larry Suffredin, a lawyer and Cook County commissioner for the 13th District. In his previous life as a lobbyist for the Chicago Bar Association, he discovered that his gender had trouble "playing nice."

"If you had a public policy issue that required a bipartisan solution, there is no question that you wanted to deal with women legislators," Suffredin explained. "They're interested in good public policy, where men - myself included - get more into the politics."

Don't tell that to Minda Booker.

"I've worked for both and women have more issues just more to prove," said the Country Club Hills woman, a 24-year veteran of the payroll department at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

That sentiment was seconded by another woman, who was so scalded by her time reporting to a female that she pleaded for anonymity.

"She was just very in-your-face," shuddered the woman, who attributed her boss's pit bull-personality to a stint at General Electric-legendary for its testosterone-fueled environment. "It was very hazardous to my health but it taught me some important lessons about being sensitive to the needs of others."

The most-frequent complaints about men? Taking credit for the work of subordinates and interpersonal skills that left underlings quivering like tuning-forks.

In fact, Beverly Hart, then a case manager for a shelter workshop, had a boss who routinely approached her cubicle and declared: "I am the big cheese. I got you this job and I can see that you lose it," said Hart, now an administrator at the Howe Center, a facility for developmentally disabled adults in Tinley Park.

Mary Doherty, who worked in sales, also had a male supervisor who had a problem in the area delicately called "anger management." For example, he referred to his administrative assistant as "the administrative idiot," Doherty said.

But the day she saw him resolve a conflict with his fists set a new low for workplace conduct. "People were shocked, but not surprised," said Doherty.

--- (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.