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Empowering Leadership: Gender Differences Are A Battlefield

Identifying talents and educating future leaders is the secret to an organization’s success. In particular, leadership potential has been recognized for effective leaders, although mostly confounded with performance leading to gender stereotypes in favor of men.

Beatrice Barbazzeni
Beatrice Barbazzeni

"We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained." - (Marie Curie)

May I say “hello girls, women, and ladies”?

I suppose that in today’s surprising article from our series on leadership 4.0 and digital transformation, I can expect that the majority of readers is “neon pink”, but I imagine that a few “electric blue” readers are also here to discover our female’s world top secrets for becoming successful 4.0 leaders… Afraid of being moved out from your “bossy” trone, don’t you? Yes, you should!

Jokes apart, this article is meant to be dedicated to strong, stubborn, and resilient women that with grit, perseverance and patience aim to achieve high leading positions while exceeding their why. Thus, this article is aimed to empower, educate and support young women entering the world of Industry 4.0., at the same time enhancing, recognizing, and valuing their potential.

In previous articles of this new series, leadership traits, styles, and theories were discussed, as well as, the new role of leaders in Industry 4.0 was examined in which a model for leaders 4.0 was developed to identify those skills and qualities needed to actuate digital transformation and a novel organization’s culture. When thinking of leadership, it is usually associated with a male profile, and barely we imagine a woman leading top positions, especially in the context of industry and digital transformation where advanced technologies, technical skill sets, and an innovative thinking approach are needed to face 21st-century challenges. However, I will prove that women have higher leadership skills than men do, and that gender differences are just a social and cultural misunderstanding. Hence, put aside stereotypes, prejudices, and let’s get started!

Leadership: does gender matter?

Why do women occupy top executive positions less frequently than men?

Taking on leadership roles requires a high dose of responsibility and executive decisions, although it represents a relevant prerequisite for an ambitious career. Discrimination and self-selection were recognized main factors generating this gender gap, particularly in politics [1,2]. However, organizations and academic workplaces started to implement training programs designed to evolve women toward leadership, in which decision-making skills and learning to develop a responsible attitude were dominant.  Investigating gender differences in a social context [3,4], it was found that women were less motivated in leading [5], in making risky decisions  [6], or in taking action [7]. Hence, the study of Alan et al. (2020) [3] investigated the evolution of willingness of making decisions in groups, from childhood to adolescence to discover predictive factors related to gender differences in leadership willingness.

Leadership willingness was measured with an experiment proposed by Ertac and Gurdal, 2012 [8], either conducted individually or in a group setting, in which a risky decision task was performed [9]. In the first task, participants were asked to make an individual decision under risk, whereas in the second one participants (as leaders of the group) were asked to choose to take the responsibility of deciding on behalf of others (social risk). In this case, choosing for others is based on self-selection; a measure related to self-confidence and social scrutiny. To identify social confidence (predictor of leadership willingness) a real effort math task was also performed (in private or in public). Furthermore, other variables were implemented as predictors of leadership willingness, such as the risk attitude. A battery of survey questions aimed to generate fear of embarrassment, assertiveness, anxiety, and fear of disappointing others.

Based on a large dataset ranging from 10 to 13 years old participants, results did show that while there was no gender difference in willingness to make risky decisions for children, a considerable gap was observed in adolescents. Indeed, leadership willingness dropped by 39% in girls, from childhood to adolescence. The decline in social confidence was identified as the main factor related to willingness in performing a demanding task in public. Moreover, gender differences in mathematical ability were observed already in childhood, persisting also in adolescence. Thus, boys showed a tendency to perform higher, whereas girls were more risk-averse.

Gender differences were also observed in self-confidence. Indeed, while no differences were identified in private for children, a gap emerged in adolescence. Different was the case for social confidence where a gap was already observed in childhood with stronger confidence for boys; a predictor of leadership decisions determining gender difference in leadership willingness. Risk tolerance was also found to be a predictor; mostly for girls in childhood and for boys in adolescence. Grit emerged as a predictor of leadership choice but only for girls.

This study demonstrated that a relevant gender difference in leadership would start to develop in adolescence and a few factors were determinant. Based on these predictive factors, would it be possible to explain the change that happens from childhood to adolescence? Gender differences in leadership willingness were attributed to decreased self-confidence, social confidence, and risk tolerance toward puberty, although no changes were observed in maths ability or girt. Public pressure, but also stereotype threat [10] were identified as the main reason explaining why girls are less successful than boys in performing demanding tasks, although equally able and aware of it.

Leadership choice was found to be positively related to assertiveness and negatively with anxiousness. Social concern was also found to be the reason for not making group decisions and mostly in adolescents. Moreover, while social anxiety prevented the public performance of a demanding task in children, the belief of not being good in math was observed in adolescents, becoming a strong predictor influencing leadership performance.

Advice: The understanding of those factors affecting leadership is worthwhile when explaining gender differences in industry, corporate, or politics. This study [3] was indeed aimed to investigate decision-making responsibility in a group as well as social performance, and how these evolve from childhood to adolescence. Aversion to social scrutiny and social pressure are relevant factors explaining why women are not taking leadership positions and group responsibilities. To support women in achieving top leading positions, being comfortable with public failure should be identified as a relevant non-cognitive skill that needs to be reinforced, especially during adolescence, in which social fear determining gender differences in willingness may arise. Reinforcing self-confidence and public self-image would support young women in leadership and decision-making [3].

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Leadership: how powerful are you?

Identifying talents and educating future leaders is the secret to an organization’s success. In particular, leadership potential has been recognized for effective leaders, although mostly confounded with performance leading to gender stereotypes in favor of men [11,12,13]. Based on a social role theory (defying gender roles) [14], women are often perceived and expected to be communal (e.g., caring, sensitive), whereas men as agentic (e.g., determined, competitive), penalizing women and prioritizing men because perceived as more capable leaders [15,16] while generating gender inequalities in leadership positions.

In two experiments simulating a hiring decision situation, Player et al. (2019) [17] investigated leadership potential and performance that people attribute to males and females in leadership positions testing the hypothesis that leadership potential is overlooked in women; explained by the “think manager-think male” phenomenon (Schein’s paradigm, 1973). In the first experiment, it was tested leadership potential and whether there was a preference for males overlooking this in females. Whereas, in the second experiment leadership potential and performance were evaluated for each gender, specifically when leaders would have been hired for a senior management position. Both experiments were designed to estimate whether leadership potential is overlooked in women who aspire high leading positions when compared to men of identical professional preparation. Five hypotheses were then investigated: 1) leadership potential is preferred over performance; 2) leadership potential is expected more in males; 3) leadership potential is preferred in males when a candidate is chosen; 4) leadership performance is preferred in women; 5) high leadership potential male candidates are selected more than females.

Results did show that gender can dramatically influence the assessment of leadership potential and performance. Indeed, leadership potential was preferred when male candidates were ranked, overlooking females with the same role. Moreover, males with demonstrated higher potential were also perceived as having a better résumé and expected to show a better performance than their peers, who instead, demonstrated higher leadership performance. On the opposite, women that showed higher performance was perceived as having an excellent résumé. Why leadership performance is prioritized in candidate women? Often women are required to prove greater competence than men, due to the impact of negative stereotypes and expectations; thus, they have to strengthen their professional backgrounds to prove their skills and competencies to overcome role-congruity bias.

Advice: Despite a few study limitations, leadership potential has been valued higher than leadership performance in males, whereas the opposite can be said for females; an overlooked potential effect that benefits men but hides women who aspire to top leadership positions demanding potential. Considering the practical implication for enterprises of this research study, these two experiments were indeed able to replicate what usually happens in typical hiring situations, so the understanding of how gender would impact and influence the development of leadership potential, consequently job promotions, is essential to support gender equality and fairness. Enhancing awareness and recognizing leadership potential even in women would have the effect of supporting talents and hard work leading organizations to reach their potential and goals [17].

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Leadership: different dominant styles in workplaces

How men and women are selected for leadership positions? Do they have equal developmental opportunities? Do they adopt an equal leadership style? Who performs better?

Considering gender differences and stereotypes, a framework was developed to investigate under which conditions leaders are selected and further developed, their style, and effectiveness. Hence, a model of selection, development, leadership style, and performance was proposed to explore each stage of the leadership process while valuing experiences and perceptions of female leaders [18].


Worldwide, women struggle in achieving senior leading positions, although their recognized success as supervisors and mid-position managers. Thus, men seem to have a greater advantage due to gender bias and stereotypes against women. When women are perceived as more agenetic than communal, tend to be more discriminated against. For this reason, women should evaluate how to demonstrate this trait without violating the stereotype when taking the lead. Moreover, there is a misjudgment that women are less qualified than male candidates, although women looking for senior leading positions can be also biased by the type of chosen industry; indeed, education, healthcare, government, and hospitality appear to ideally represent women, whereas traditional industries (e.g., manufacturing, finance, construction) favor men. Lastly, a so-called glass cliff phenomenon emerges in which women are mostly assigned to lead those companies destined to fail (probably because able to make visible and concrete changes, needed to restore the organization’s faith in such an emergency), differently from men that are usually selected to lead companies defined to be successful.


Although leadership development and leader development have different meanings, in which the former occurs at the system and applies a method to further develop a leader while the latter refers to the individual and his/her adulthood development, this has an effect on influencing the development of leaders based on genders, and successively on assigning leadership roles in organizations. Leader development aims to enhance a few skills such as interpersonal awareness and job-related capacities. Particularly for promising leading women, this developmental process and methods result meaningful to succeed and to perform at a high level, consistently. Consequently, developing a leader’s skills and qualities (self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation) has also the effect of being beneficial for the entire organization’s success. Common methods that are currently applied to develop and empower future leaders are:

  1. Multi rater feedback: has been widely used to improve self-awareness based on feedback (received from supervisors, peers, direct reports, or key stakeholders). Women can benefit from receiving honest feedback while enhancing awareness toward “blindspots”. However, combining feedback with self-reflection would have a better effect in enhancing awareness, consequently improving performance.
  2. Executive coaching: is implemented in defying a plan that scales an individual’s strengths while spotting weaknesses. Balancing private and work life, appears a recognizable challenge for women, and finding a balance is not always so simple. For this reason, executive coaches should consider this fact, be more mindful and supportive when creating a leading plan for women, able to accomplish a work-life match.
  3. Mentorship: when developing leaders, most of the time women are paired with male mentors although this would represent an obstacle. Indeed, gender and dominant leading position (so-called second-generation bias) could affect the effectiveness of this relationship. To overcome this issue, providing male and female mentors would generate better results. Organizations should provide also adequate, strategic mentoring programs for strengthening women toward achieving senior leading roles.
  4. Networking: central to a leader’s development they would allow opportunities in increasing social contacts, work collaborations, promotions, credibility, and a social environment to be professionally recognized. Nevertheless, men’s attitude in building networks appears mostly related to reaching and accomplishing different purposes (more strategic), whereas women build their networks based on empathy and emotional connections. Considering gender differences in networking, organizations should recommend how to establish effective networks based on gender attitudes while educating women in reaching higher positions.

Nevertheless, women are encouraged to focus their awareness and integrity as future leaders, to understand and face gender biases and stereotypes. Overcoming them would allow women to succeed and to strengthen their potential in developing themselves as leaders. However, not much research has been done on how to support the development of women in leadership, so this study [18] was also aimed to encourage and demonstrate the need of supporting women’s development already in schools in the perspective of a real workplace setting.


Having already explored leadership styles, traits, and theories, is there any gender difference between male and female leaders?

Differently from their male peers, women leaders tend to adopt a democratic style, and mostly related to transformational leadership, although rigorous support in manifesting other styles lack robust evidence, particularly when comparing genders (e.g., authentic leadership). However, a few studies were negatively judged as overestimating these differences. Moreover, differences in attitudes, values, and abilities were strongly found albeit a defined difference in leadership style among genders has yet to be clarified.


Are men and women equally effective when holding leadership positions? How can performance be measured according to gender differences? Is there a gender difference in perceiving effective leadership performance? Would gender difference in leadership have an impact on an organization/group results?

Measuring performance has been widely used to evaluate leadership effectiveness, although different situations and circumstances should also be considered, as well as, followers’ expectations and prejudices. Moreover, perception of effectiveness resulted implicitly connected with leader’s abilities, and therefore this factor has to be considered concerning differences in leadership skills. In a meta-analysis, Eagly et al. (1995) [19] investigated gender differences in leadership effectiveness in real organizations and lab settings, where performance was evaluated as “objective” or “subjective” in first- and mid-level leaders. Results showed that a lack of gender difference in leadership effectiveness, and so on performance, was found.

A variety of influencing factors was also considered (e.g., study setting, level of leadership, percentage of men having a leadership role, perception of masculinity or femininity roles), finding that gender type (male or female) was positively evaluated when matching the perceived role gender (masculine or feminine), as well as, the male-dominated role was also perceived more effective in male leaders, especially occupying a first-level leading position in the military setting, whereas women in mid-level leadership for other contexts (e.g., government, social service). However, not clear is whether this analysis measured performance; it demonstrated no main effect of gender on leadership effectiveness although influenced by sex-type of roles. Moreover, it was also found [20] that perceiving an incongruency between female characteristics and what is needed to be a performing leader would determine prejudices against women.

In a recent study, Paustian-Underdahl et al. (2014) [20] did find again no gender effect on perceived leadership effectiveness. Interestingly was the fact that the nowadays increasing number of women having leadership roles would weakness role stereotypes and the incongruency effect (gender role congruency); indeed, women would have been evaluated more negatively in the past compared to more recent years although these findings were not significantly proved. Furthermore, no gender differences in organizations setting were found, although for hierarchical level women were perceived as more effective but only in mid-level positions. Women, who hold senior leadership positions, were also perceived as more effective than their male peers; this finding results important especially when considering CEOs’ gender diversities. Ratings of others of being perceived as more effective are less influenced by biases (compared to self-ratings of effectiveness). Women are so perceived as more effective when having higher leadership roles, and this result may also be influenced by the rating source.

Relevant is also the evaluation of how gender differences in leadership may impact the outcome of an organization. In this regard, the review of Kulik and Metz (2015) [21] investigated an organization outcome (e.g., financial, corporate social responsibility, group/team process, and organizational practices), based on the leader’s role (e.g., CEO, corporate, TMT, manager), and its relation to women leaders, while also investigating the effectiveness between male and female leaders. When interpreting results and differences in leadership performance, it should consider the opinion of mediators and moderators. Different leadership styles and mindsets in male or female CEOs would lead to different performance and effectiveness. The national country, different strategies, and cultures in the organization are relevant factors influencing leadership performance. Lastly, gender differences in performance may also be related to diverse group decision-making processes and key stakeholders.

Advice: In summary, despite a lack of differences among males and females in style or performance, understanding gender differences in leadership are essential, especially against biases and stereotypes when selecting women for senior leadership positions. Confounding confidence with competence (e.g., perceiving men as better leaders), or gender roles based on culture would cause biases and so, not favoring women. Selection processes should be based on observed effectiveness, self-awareness, learning ability, adaptability, and flexibility to cope with different situations, as well as, the candidate’s personality and profile that would fit better with an organization’s culture. In line with this, more leadership programs should be designed to educate, prepare, and encourage women toward leadership. Social context and environmental situations resulted also in primary and influencing factors to be considered when selecting and developing future leaders [18].

Empowering Leadership: When Women Win

Although this article was mostly focused on acknowledging and awakening toward stereotypes, biases, and misconceptions on gender differences (based on robust research evidence), in the next article I will overturn the situation proving that women are way more capable than men do concerning leadership skills. Moreover, advice and lessons learned from female leaders will be discussed [22]. Lastly, xFAB Women, an innovative online program to empower and educate future 4.0 leading women will be presented.

Keep it up, WONDERWOMEN!

"We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead." - (Beyoncé)

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Beatrice Barbazzeni

Beatrice is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience aimed to achieve her MTP with discipline, perseverance and grit:“empower inner potential leading to the growth of exponential winners".