Women Grow More Effective Than Men As They Climb the Executive Ladder

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Women at higher levels of management tend to be more effective than men. In fact, the higher they climb, the more efficient they become, says new research conducted on behalf of the Harvard Business Review.

“Our latest survey of 7,280 leaders, which our organization evaluated in 2011, confirms some seemingly eternal truths about men and women leaders in the workplace but also holds some surprises,” says the report, noting that “our data-set was generated from leaders in some of the most successful and progressive organizations in the world both public and private, government and commercial, domestic and international."

It might be expected that female leaders excel mostly at "nurturing" competencies including developing others and building relationships, which was true: women did score higher than men in these categories.

But the fact is that at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts—“and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows,” says the research conducted by leadership development firm Zenger Folkman.

Asked about the overall effectiveness by gender across several management categories, percentile scores broke down as follows, with females excelling in every leadership category:

Male Female
Top management, executive, senior team members 57.7 67.7
Reports to top management, supervises middle managers 48.9 56.2
Middle manager 49.9 52.7
Supervisor, front line manager 52.5 52.6
Individual contributor 52.7 52.0


Moreover, at all levels, women are rated higher in 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership, and two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree—taking initiative and driving for results—have long been thought of as particularly male strengths, says the Harvard Business Review.

What was being tracked were the judgments of a leader's peers, bosses and direct reports. Individuals were asked to rate each leader's effectiveness overall and also to judge how strong he or she is on over a dozen competencies judged as important to overall leadership effectiveness.

“As it happened, men outscored women significantly on only one management competence in this survey—the ability to develop a strategic perspective,” the research reveals.

When researchers shared their findings with a group of women outside this particular survey and asked them to suggest why they thought their colleagues had been rated so highly on taking initiative and self-development, their answers pointed to the “still-tenuous” position they feel themselves to be in the workplace. Women were afraid to rest on their laurels, and feeling the need to take initiative, they were more highly motivated to take feedback to heart. Other responses include:

  1. "We need to work harder than men to prove ourselves."
  2. "We feel the constant pressure to never make a mistake and to continually prove our value to the organization."

When asked about the survey, recruiter Janice Detta Colli, managing director with Boyden Toronto, told eFinancialCareers that women in finance tend to stand out when they do good work, given that there are so few of them on the scene.

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