Home Features Women in Leadership In the genes: Why women are natural born leaders

In the genes: Why women are natural born leaders

Nicole Lipkin* says study after study shows that women have a natural bent towards the qualities necessary for great leadership.


While the gap between men and women in leadership roles is decreasing, there remains a huge disparity between them.

According to a 2019 Lean In study about women in the workplace, women only hold 21 per cent of C-suite positions.

Yet studies show that once women land leadership positions they excel – often surpassing men – because they have ingrained soft skills necessary for effective leadership.

Traits like empathy, communication, and listening are innate feminine qualities that serve women well when in management positions.

This is ironic because soft skills have also historically been used as excuses for why women are not fit to lead.

There’s been a conceit that “you need a man to take charge and make the tough decisions everyone else is afraid to make”.

Yet what we know now is a “strong” leader is a servant leader, who gathers all points of view in a collaborative effort to get at the best course of action.

This bodes well for the future of women leaders as study after study proves women have a natural bend toward collaboration.

Let’s take a journey through childhood …

Traditional social norms still persist in the development and play of childhood.

Girls are socialised to be cooperative, collaborative, and relationship-driven in the traditional gameplay of childhood, while boys are socialised in their play to be competitive and exist in a dualistic world of winning and losing.

With the rise of gender-neutral toys and increased awareness of how gender-specific activities influence children toward specific behaviour, these norms are changing.

Nevertheless, parents are not unified across the board when it comes to creating gender-neutral activities for their children.

Additionally, what people say publicly doesn’t always match what they do privately at home.

How does this impact leadership down the line?

These early socialisation experiences are highly impactful for children in positive and negative ways.

On the positive side, organisations that employ more women in leadership positions tend to be more collaborative.

A 2013 study confirmed women are more drawn to collaboration than men, whereas men tend to become attracted to team-oriented work environments only when doing so would prove more efficient.

Men, say the researchers, statistically have a pessimistic view of their teammates’ potential abilities.

Moreover, the study found that women’s bend towards collaboration has an altruistic side as well: “Specifically, we find that women are much more likely to pick the ‘team’ option when doing so would have a positive impact on their partners’ incomes, and show that this pattern is consistent with a higher level of ‘advantageous’ inequity aversion among women than men,” authors Peter J. Kuhn and Marie-Claire Villeval wrote.

This points to an inherent desire in women for the organisation as a whole to succeed.

An aversion to inequity creates a culture that cultivates fairness and justice in the interest of creating employee engagement and employee retention.

The danger for women is overcollaboration.

In collaborative work cultures, women tend to bear the burden of collaboration more than men.

They give away their time more frequently and do not prioritise their own needs.

This can lead to burnout and higher stress levels.

Thus, it’s important for women to balance their collaborative side with a selfish side in the interest of the greater good, something that apparently gets easier for women with age.

A 2019 Zenger/Folkman study revealed that women tend to rate themselves lower than men in leadership self-assessments.

They aren’t necessarily underrating themselves, but rather they maintain a realistic view of their abilities.

Men, on the other hand, overrate themselves when self-evaluating.

While this realistic self-appraisal doesn’t serve women when it comes to advocating for oneself, it will serve them down the line once in a leadership role.

Better to err on the side of realistic self-evaluation than overconfidence, which can blind a leader and push them to solely look for solutions that support their ideas.

The Zenger/Folkman study found that women’s confidence levels do rise, however, as they get older.

Until the age of 40, women underrate themselves, but by the time they are 60, their level of self-efficacy surpasses men’s.

Collaborate, don’t evaporate

The cautionary tale for women is collaborating to the point where they do not feel confident in their own decision-making prowess.

If you lean too far on the collaborative side, it would be wise to calibrate your style a bit, so you get your opinion out there and/or your point across.

You can’t collaborate your way to the top; you will also need to feel confident in your independence and your ability to work alone.

Use collaboration to gather all points of view – but cultivate your self-confidence so you are comfortable expressing and supporting your own point of view without requiring a group consensus.

If you feel like your self-confidence could use some primping:

  • Get a coach – The right coach can shine a light on where you’re falling short or not believing in yourself, and then motivate you to step outside of your comfort zone.
  • Say yes to what you want even if it scares you a little – If you are realistically self-evaluating yourself to a fault, it might be time to take the plunge and simply say “yes” to a position or task that you want but feel might be slightly out of your comfort zone. Anticipation is typically much more daunting than reality.

What it all means

The assertions laid herein are not applicable across the board – that is, not all men are anti-collaboration and not all women are altruistic collaborative team players.

But the research does point to women having a pro-collaborative streak and self-assessment rooted in reality.

These two aspects will aid them in leadership positions, specifically when it comes to listening to all possible solutions and keeping the status quo at bay.

As long as women don’t forsake their own intuition and self-confidence for a collaboration-only approach, they will create work cultures where people feel valued and heard.


Dr Nicole Lipkin is an organisational psychologist, coach and author. She tweets at @DrNicoleLipkin.

This article first appeared at www.forbes.com