Separated by a common language: Men and women still talk differently about leadership . . . and it matters more than ever | Heidrick & Struggles

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Diversity and Inclusion

Separated by a common language: Men and women still talk differently about leadership . . . and it matters more than ever

5/5/2020 Karen Rosa West, PhD and Megan Herbst

Gender language 

Women represented only 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs in 2019, and while that’s progress from the prior year’s 4.8%, change has been excruciatingly slow. There are many reasons for the slow pace of increasing gender diversity in executive ranks across the board—limiting women’s career ambitions as well as their contributions to companies—but we believe one factor has been largely overlooked: how we all use language.

One area of study at Heidrick & Struggles is discerning patterns that suggest how leadership is evolving and how that evolution relates to the recruitment, development, and retention of leaders. Some particularly intriguing insights percolated to the top recently from results across more than 2,000 individual leadership assessments done with our proprietary Leadership Accelerator Questionnaire 360.

We noted that there are clear gender differences in how women and men describe their strengths and areas for development, consistent with how others describe them. That observation in itself is not surprising. What caught our attention was the fact that the differences in word choice by each gender echo past beliefs and practices, even though it’s widely acknowledged that the characteristics of a successful leader are evolving.

Specifically, we saw a perpetuation of cultural male–female stereotypes that still pervade our society at a time when stereotypically male leadership traits are held to be less universally useful than in earlier decades. At the most successful companies we work with, the notion of leadership is rapidly changing to reflect how organizations function now, including the need to build teams and forge effective working relationships to accomplish broader goals.

But that notion is changing faster than the words used to describe leaders. For example, the words men and women used to describe men were chiefly strategy- and decision-oriented, while the words women and men used to describe women focused more on relationships and emotion. In addition, overall, no one rated men more highly than they rated themselves.

The use of these gender-associated words also extended to other descriptors. There were distinct gender differences in how colleagues described male and female executives’ “derailers,” as we call areas that could hold someone back from further success. Derailers for men more often centered on building and navigating productive relationships, providing difficult feedback, and contributing to others’ development, while derailers cited for women included taking on too much, overcommitting, and micromanaging by ultimately doing work that should be done by others.

Though these stereotypes are familiar, understanding how deeply ingrained and persistent they remain matters, because language shapes our own thoughts, goals, roles, and even confidence about what we believe we’re capable of achieving. In our professional experience, it’s likely that the language people use is shaping how our society envisions what is possible. While this certainly entails a complex set of variables, leaders should guard against using gender-limiting language that can inhibit the development of people with valuable skills who could contribute as leaders in the matrixed, agile organizations required to compete in a rapidly changing global environment.

Ironically, unless they are made aware, even those who have been subject to these stereotypes often continue to use such stereotypical language. One female senior executive we know, for example, recently found herself called out by a female colleague for describing a male candidate for a particular role mainly in terms of his accomplishments, business impact, and measurable results, and a female candidate mainly in terms of her ability to build relationships as well as culture fit and personality. The point? We all need to be conscious of these pitfalls, and we can all do better.

But this is far more than a concern just for individuals. We see many organizations shortchanging themselves because of an inability to see the potential of their people to become the leaders they need for the 21st century. We note that the limited vocabulary traditionally associated with leaders, which focuses on strategy and results, includes the sorts of words still used more often to describe men.

The upshot? As we observe organizations transforming to tackle new challenges, there will be increased demand for leaders who can manage disruptive change and leverage the work of teams to bring diverse viewpoints to bear in crafting innovative solutions. To do that, they will have to leave behind narrow, outmoded views of leadership competencies that reflect gender stereotypes and be ready to embrace new ones, those better suited to the expanded leadership profile required today.

Therefore, organizations should, as much as possible, be conscious of their criteria for defining senior roles and leadership selection, making sure to assess potential leaders for task- and strategy-oriented as well as interpersonal capabilities, without regard to which gender these skills are traditionally identified with. With a steady focus on the proven science of leadership and a solid effort to keep traditional gender stereotypes (and the language that reflects them) out of the equation, current leaders will be doing all stakeholders a great service.


About the s

Karen Rosa West (kwest@idianxue.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office and chief innovation officer of HLabs, the research arm of Heidrick & Struggles.

Megan Herbst (mherbst@idianxue.com) is a psychological analytics coordinator for HLabs; she is based in the Chicago office.

You can reach them at HLabs@idianxue.com.


Karen Rosa West, PhD Partner +1-312-496-1892

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