True or false? Women make braver leaders than men

Lots are leaning in.
Lots are leaning in.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Reams of research show that women confer many benefits to companies. They listen better, they represent the views of half the population, and they temper their hard-charging (pdf) male counterparts.

Except that it turns out, they are even more hard-charging.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, the CEO and president, respectively, of Zenger/Folkm, a leadership consulting business, designed a “boldness index” from a database of assessments from 75,000 leaders around the world. They found  that “women on average rank in the 52nd percentile of boldness, a few ticks higher than the average men rating of the 49th percentile.” If that doesn’t seem like a big difference, that’s because it’s not. But their conclusion defies the conventional wisdom that women are biologically more harmonious and risk-averse compared to their fractious and ambitious male counterparts.

Here are the components of their index, published in the Harvard Business Review:

  • Challenges standard approaches
  • Creates an atmosphere of continual improvement
  • Does everything possible to achieve goals
  • Gets others to go beyond what they originally thought possible
  • Energizes others to take on challenging goals
  • Quickly recognizes situations where change is needed
  • Has the courage to make needed changes

Some might call the compilation of all those traits “innovative,” “smart,” or even ”common sensical”—they are leaders after all. And the index says nothing of the epic double standards women face around “being bold” and taking risks: aggressive men are leaders, aggressive women are difficult; men lead boldly, women are bossy.

It’s clearly an issue to be addressed because when Zenger and Folkman analyzed their data to see how these traits materialized across different business functions. They found that in every function, women on average were braver, or more creative than men.

Context, they found, also matters: When they broke individuals into age groups, the data showed women step it up when they are in jobs dominated by the other sex. Women age 30 and under rated in the 62nd percentile for boldness in male-dominated functions like sales, but only the 42nd percentile in female-dominated roles such as engineering and safety. That could be because naturally bold women gravitate to those jobs, or because women in those jobs find they are most successful harnessing those traits.