Are Women Better Leaders?
As more rise to positions of power, the evidence is intriguing
When George W. Bush looks out during his first speech to Congress a few weeks from now, he will see the faces of more women than at any time in the nation's history. Thirteen women have taken their seats in the Senate this year--including four newcomers to the chamber--and 59 have been sworn in as members of the House, breaking records in both cases. The great bulk of them are Democrats, but Bush is the first Republican president in history who has made white males a minority in his own cabinet.
What we are seeing is that politics is gradually beginning to catch up with medicine, law, business, journalism, and other professions in the advancement of females as leaders. Even greater changes lie ahead: Young women make up the majority of all undergraduates in American colleges and about half of all graduate students in law and medicine. Business schools have lagged behind others in female participation, but with women making up a third of their enrollment, even they are changing.
Advocates say there is a good reason for the emergence of women as leaders in one field after another: Women have begun knocking on glass ceilings at the very time that the demands for leadership are changing. As Sally Helgesen and Helen Fisher point out in their popular books, many organizations are no longer looking for top-down authority figures like Jack Welch but for more participative, inclusive approaches to leadership within flattened hierarchies. In her book The Web of Inclusion, Helgesen argues that to succeed in a service economy that is fluid, technology-driven, and based on creative relationships, a business must be structured like a web--not a pyramid.
Teamwork. Women, according to Fisher, have a natural advantage in "web thinking." She and others believe that women have a greater tendency than men to take a holistic, contextual view of any issue at hand, considering a web of interrelated factors, instead of compartmentalizing problems and assessing their linear cause-effect components. For example, Fisher writes in The First Sex, "women generally look at individual social problems, such as drug abuse or teen pregnancy, and link them to broader, deeper social ills."
The rise of so many female leaders shouldn't surprise. Business Week magazine recently conducted a survey of management studies and came to this conclusion: "After years of analyzing what makes leaders most effective and figuring out who's got the Right Stuff, management gurus now know how to boost the odds of getting a great executive: Hire a female." It quoted Harvard Business School Prof. Rosabeth Moss Kanter: "Women get high ratings on exactly those skills needed to succeed in the global information age, where teamwork and partnering are so important."
Whether that is true in every case remains debatable. Carly Fiorina, a poster girl of women CEOs, has recently been struggling at Hewlett-Packard. Her supporters say that no one, man or woman, could do better at reinventing the company. Meanwhile, other women are flourishing as leaders in nontraditional roles. Entrepreneur Donna Dubinsky cofounded Palm, the hand-held computing giant, then left and cofounded its highly successful rival, Handspring. By her mid-40s, she had created two companies with a total market value of more than $37 billion. In Arizona, women have been elected to the top spots in state gov- ernment. In North Carolina, women are winning high marks as leaders of three of the state's most prestigious universities: Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State.