Research Findings

Are female leaders key to tackling society’s grand challenges?

March 2, 2023

The world is facing several grand challenges. One only need look at the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals to see that, in our global society, critical barriers stand in the way of important global advancement. Climate change, societal aging, natural resource management, gender inequality, and health and well-being are some of the most important grand challenges of our time. The COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps the most salient, since it remains a “seemingly intractable” puzzle that does not offer straightforward solutions.

Addressing grand challenges requires coordinated and collaborative action toward a clearly articulated problem and goal, each calling for its own specific approach. Societal leaders need to be able to mobilize a variety of stakeholders and coordinate their efforts to secure a common goal that none could obtain without the efforts of one another. But are certain types of leaders naturally better positioned than others to successfully resolve these complex crises?

Think Female, Think Relational

To address grand challenges, prior research has suggested the need for leaders who can organize and cooperate with diverse stakeholders (e.g., business, health, and public policy) while effectively translating the details of their efforts with the public. Such leaders must often take a relational approach, one that emphasizes collaboration, open communication, and trust.

In our study, we sought to understand whether certain types of leaders enjoyed a natural advantage in being perceived as more relational and therefore more effective in addressing a grand challenge. We focused on understanding the role a leader’s gender would have on influencing perception. Does the gender of a person in charge have any bearing on how they are viewed as an effective leader?

Indeed, we spend a lot of time thinking about why females aren’t represented in the top levels of government and the obstacles that they potentially face in ascending to prominent leadership positions, but very rarely do we ask whether there are circumstances in which female leadership may be preferred. While women in leadership positions may generally be penalized as a result of a “think leader—think male” mindset, in certain situations, such as addressing the aforementioned wide-ranging societal challenges, women benefit from a “think female—think relational” mindset, underscoring the perception of an innate ability to get multiple, diverse stakeholder groups on the same proverbial page.

Some female leaders even reinforce these stereotypes through their words and actions. The first female CEO of a Big Four accounting firm, Lynne Doughtie of KPMG, stated, “I have found that women are really in their element in a very collaborative approach.” Specific to COVID-19, when Angela Merkel addressed the German public at the onset of the pandemic, she was flanked by multiple public health officials and took pains to say that the information she was sharing was determined from the findings of a team of experts. This image of a group-based consensus stood in stark contrast to the top-down, autocratic leadership approaches taken by such leaders as the United States’ Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Female Leaders and the Relational Advantage

We conducted a laboratory experiment to examine the possibility of a female relational advantage. Knowing stakeholders turn to media coverage for information during grand challenges and similarly uncertain and complex events, we presented each of the participants with one of two scenarios adapted from a major news article discussing a leader’s response to COVID-19 in April 2020. The only difference between the two scenarios was the leader’s gender. Participants were then asked if the leader encouraged collaboration, cultivated a trustful environment, and encouraged open conversation. The results demonstrated that females were rated more relational than their male counterparts and hence seen as more capable.

Our findings offer some evidence that leader gender—and, more importantly, the assumptions of stereotypical relational qualities associated with each gender—can critically influence stakeholders’ perceptions during challenging times. The preference for relational leadership may be one reason Germany’s Angela Merkel was praised for creating a calm, reasoned message that “hit home.” Similarly, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern was noted for her “clarity and compassion.” Ultimately, this work demonstrates that there are contexts (grand challenges) in which stereotypical thinking drives a female leadership advantage.

At the same time, evidence exists that female leaders are viewed more favorably when they can negotiate on behalf of the “general welfare” or the “common good,” critical components of battling COVID-19. Constituents also view female leaders as better equipped to handle social issues, such as education, civil rights, poverty, and homelessness, reinforcing that female leaders should be better equipped as relational leaders than males.

Although women make up only roughly 20% of world leaders, it appears that, overall, the public has more confidence in their abilities when it comes to ably tackling grand challenges.

Read more

Abbie G. Oliver, Michael D. Pfarrer, & Francois Neville. “Grand Challenges and Female Leaders: An Exploration of Relational Leadership During the COVID-19 Pandemic” in Business & Society 2022.

Image: European Parliament via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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