Women Make Awesome Leaders. So Why Aren’t More Actually Leading?

Traditions die hard. Women make great leaders, yet even in 2021, few hold top positions.

Humans tend to hold on to traditions because change is difficult. It’s easier to stay course on the same road than to take the one less traveled by.

And nowhere is that more visible than women in leadership roles.

“She was powerful. Not because she wasn’t scared, but because she went on so strongly, despite the fear.”

Despite oftentimes scoring higher than their male counterparts when it comes to leadership skills, the chief executive office largely remains male-dominated territory. In 2019, a paltry 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and a meager 2% of S&P CEOS were women.

Women have been much more visible in the political arena, but that success hasn’t carried through to senior leadership positions in companies. That’s where tradition, biases and prejudices too often bolt the door to women candidates.

Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg summed up those hindrances best:

As a country and as a world, we are not comfortable with women in leadership roles. Little girls get called bossy all the time – a word that’s almost never used for boys – and that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce.

Scoring High, Yet Missing the Leadership Mark…Why?

Plenty of research reveals that unconscious bias wields a major role in hiring and promoting women, which is ultimately reflected at the top levels within organizations.

These biases fly in the face of the high competencies, capabilities and aptitudes that women possess. Recent studies in Harvard Business Review revealed that women in leadership positions were viewed as being just as effective as men.

In their studies, women were rated as excelling in all these key areas of leadership:

  • taking initiative
  • undertaking self-development
  • performing with resilience
  • demonstrating high honesty and integrity

Women were believed to be much more effective in over 80% of the competencies that measure leadership traits.

Perpetual biases against women are common: Bold may be mistaken as overbearing. Tenacious can be unfairly judged as nagging. Even professional can be misinterpreted as icy and even “unfeminine.” Too often, those worn-out stereotypes and old prejudices get in the way – and when that happens, no one wins.

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”
– Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand)

Leadership Confidence or Competence?

A lack of confidence in themselves that may be one factor that holds many women back. Many of us can relate to that sneaky inner saboteur that tells us we’re not good enough, or we don’t have the right experience, education, or professional network… Data since 2016 revealed that women under the age of 25 don’t view themselves with confidence. Writers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman offer that those in that age group are probably much more competent than they believe themselves to be – that is the exact opposite from their male counterparts, who tend to be overconfident given their level of competence.

According to HBR data, as women age, their belief in themselves increases:

  • Rating confidence for the age group 25 to over 60 years of age, men gained only 8.5 percentile points, while women gained a whopping 29 percentile points.

HBR notes that different studies have led to different conclusions when it comes to confidence in women. In other words, building confidence is important – but it’s only one factor and certainly not an end-all, be-all solution.

  • Studies do agree, however, that women tend to shy away from applying for a job they don’t feel qualified for, while a man is inclined to forge ahead. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes that society in general is unable to distinguish between confidence and competence.

“We are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women…the only advantage that men have over women is the fact that manifestations of hubris – often masked as charisma or charm – are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.”

One Step Forward…One Back

Since the 2019 HBR statistics, there was a slight increase of women holding the title of CEO during the last year – which was an extremely challenging and tumultuous year for businesses. Writing in bizwomen, Anne Stych reported that in early 2020, women held 6.7% of CEO positions and by the end of the year, claimed 8% of CEO positions.

Those statistics were marred somewhat when JCPenney released the news that CEO Jill Soltau would step down and be replaced by Stanley Shashoua. This brings light to the “glass cliff” phenomenon – when women are hired during extremely challenging times in an industry with no certainty of success. Soltau’s replacement gives credence to a study by researchers Alison Cook and Christy Glass from Utah State, who found that after reviewing Fortune 500 companies over more than a decade, white women and men and women of color are more likely than white men to be given the top nod as CEO at struggling firms.

Hiring Based on Leadership Skills – or Style?

Writing in Forbes earlier this year, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, succinctly summed up why there aren’t more women leaders in charge:

“We live in a sham meritocracy, where we pretend to pick the best person for each job, while simply picking those we prefer: and when the jobs pay well, they are still overwhelming male.”

Chamorro-Premuzic notes hiring isn’t based on skills, but on style: we choose confidence over competence, charisma over humility, narcissism over integrity.

He dug deeper into just how well women do better than men:

  • men score higher than women in dark personality traits (aggression, psychopathy, and narcissism)
  • women generally perform better than men in humility, self-control, social skills, moral sensitivity, among others

Chamorro-Premuzic boldly asks what would happen if less time was spent telling women to be more confident, and more time choosing leaders based on actual competence.

“Equality isn’t exceptional women getting ahead, It is incompetent men falling behind.”
-Sarah Green Carmichael, Bloomberg

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Heart-Centered Leadership Traits

Effective Leadership Starts With Your Heart

Endless books and articles have strategies on how to build your business and increase profits through effective leadership. However, current research is proving that more effective, long-term success happens when you lead with your heart.

A People-First Approach

The site Leadership Freak describes heart-centered leadership as difficult but also potentially life-changing for both the leaders and those they manage because it puts people ahead of business outcomes. While a competent leader will expect results, an extraordinary leader asks for those results using a heart-centered approach.

It’s about finding the right balance. “All heart without results is weak. All results without heart is ugly,” says the site.

In a recent Inc.com article, Susan Steinbrecher, CEO of Steinbrecher and Associates, cites a 2012 Towers-Watson study of 50 global companies and their leadership strategies. The companies that focused on a people-first leadership approach and other people-centric business strategies had a one-year operating margin that was three times higher than companies who ignored this strategy.

According to Steinbrecher, “There is strong evidence that these results may be due to the positive impact that a more heart-centered leadership approach has on employee performance.”

Heart-Centered Leadership Traits

Below is a partial list of the qualities found in a heart-centered leader, taken from the Leadership Freak and Inc.com sites. If you see yourself in this list, congratulations! If you don’t, consider trying to work them into your management style. You might be amazed at what happens for you and your team.

Heart-centered leadership means:

  • You care more about values than results.
  • You speak the truth to others, and expect them to so the same with you.
  • Your goal is to serve the people you lead rather than them serving you.
  • You are compassionate, grateful, and a good listener.
  • You’re not afraid to admit your mistakes and ask forgiveness from others.
  • You’re committed to personal and professional growth for both you and your team members.
  • You work hard to build self-esteem in others and help them shine.
  • You assume the good in others, even if their actions indicate otherwise.
  • You consistently touch base with your team for both business and personal conversations.
  • You are dedicated to making a difference in your life, the lives of your team, and society as a whole.

To be an effective leader with a thriving business, plan with your head but lead with your heart.

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Image courtesy of Ventrilock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Female leadership in Europe still lags behind male counterparts

Female leadership in europe lags | Female leadership in Europe still lags behind male counterpartsOn April 14, 2014, the European Commission released their 2013 study on progress of gender equality in the workplace. The EU, through the Strategy for Equality 2010-2015, is seeing positive results from this campaign, but European men continue to earn 16% more than women.

Although women in Europe have made significant advances over the last fifty years, they continue to be employed at lower rates than men, with lower salaries. Additionally women are underrepresented in political positions, despite being better educated than their male counterparts. If Europe is going to remain competitive as a region and economically viable in the world, it needs the contributions of its women, more than just from an ethical and equality standpoint. The birthrate in Europe continues to decline, which will shrink the available workforce. Yet the demands for workers will remain the same.

In 2007, a comprehensive study of female participation in the workforce in Europe was conducted by the German office of McKinsey & Company, a global management and consulting firm. (Link to http://www.mckinsey.com/) Comparative data from 25 European countries was analyzed to provide some insight into the continued disparity between men and women in leadership roles in the work place and political environment.

The 2007 McKinsey & Company study examined some of the key reasons that European women continue to earn less and hold fewer leadership roles than men.

Key takeaways from the study:

The study assessed that inequality continues to persist because of:
  • Entrenched beliefs and pervasive “myths” about work and family (cultural norms)
  • Structural barriers (disincentives in tax codes, not enough flexibility)
  • Under representation of women in senior leadership roles and politics
  • Financial gap between men and women
Significant barriers to women working include:
  • Childcare (cost or inaccessibility)
  • Burden of caring for children and elderly (inflexible work schedules)
  • Taxation that de-incentivizes going to work (no tax breaks for childcare)
  • Perceived career disadvantage for mothers


The EU Strategy for Equality 2010-2015 is focused on implementing changes to reduce many of these barriers and increase the rate of employed women to men. As a result, 63% of women are currently in the work force. Funding has been allocated specifically to promoting women in the labor market and to better and more child care facilities, among other initiatives.

One of the more successful elements of the EU Strategy for Equality 2010-2015 is the increase of women serving on company boards. In 2010, women only comprised 11% of company Boards, but in 2014, that has increased to 17.8%.

Despite the successes of the EU strategy, women still face obstacles to working and remain behind their male counterparts. The McKinsey & Company study concludes that it will be necessary for governments, companies, and men and women to work together to remove these barriers.