Author Profile Picture

Øyvind Martinsen

BI Norwegian Business School

Head of the Department of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour

Read more about Øyvind Martinsen

Women are more suited to leadership, but find it harder to reach the top


There’s so much rich insight coming out of the academic sector that HR professionals need to know. At Academics’ Corner we feature the best HR researchers that tell you what they’ve found and what you need to do differently on the back of the research. Get connected to the academic sector through Academics’ Corner and make sure you never miss another piece of key research again. If you’re an academic with a relevant story, please get in touch on [email protected].

Gender parity has long been a hot topic, with sector-specific data often making the headlines. In fact, the front page of the Financial Times recently suggested that although the majority of junior staff in the finance sector are female, just 25% of senior roles are held by women.

Yet although there is a global underrepresentation of women in senior management roles, my recent research into leadership suggests that women are actually better suited to these positions, posing an important question about current management hierarchies.

My research, conducted with my colleague Professor Lars Glasø, concluded that women score higher than men in four out of the five traits that are key to successful management.

By surveying the personality traits of more than 2,900 managers – more than 900 women, more than 900 in senior management and nearly 900 from the public sector – we found that female leaders scored higher than men all but one of the categories measured.

These include initiative and clear communication, openness and ability to innovate, sociability and supportiveness as well as methodical management and goal setting.

So why, according to the Financial Times data, did the number of women holding management roles in the finance sector grow by only 1.8% to 25.5% between 2014 and 2016?

What is it that is stopping businesses around the world from successfully guiding women’s progression to management roles?

Our survey found that the one personality trait in which women fell behind men was their emotional stability and ability to withstand job-related pressure and stress.

Perhaps it is poignant that the industries where we see the fewest females in management positions are ones that carry a lot more pressure and stress, coupled with longer working hours.

In traditional sectors such as law and finance, there can be more of a reluctance to adapt and accept contemporary management practices like flexible working hours to combat long working days, and to develop structures designed specifically to help women’s progression in the company.

Yet, despite the survey suggesting that female leaders may falter due to their stronger tendency to worry, or lower emotional stability, this does not negate the fact that they are decidedly more suited to management positions than their male counterparts.

If decision-makers ignore this truth, they could effectively be employing less qualified leaders and impairing productivity.

Some countries have been more successful at combatting the stigmas that have traditionally prevented women’s progression in their careers, but in certain cultures these stereotypes still exist.

Data published by the Financial Times indicated that Asia, with just 6.9% female representation at senior levels, is the continent that struggles the most to realise the potential that females offer businesses.

Seon-Joo Kwon, Chairman and CEO of the Industrial Bank of Korea commented: “In Korea, whilst it is not as strong as in the past, there is strong tradition or culture that child care and homecare is the woman’s job. This cultural pressure is the reason that so many women leave their potentially successful careers, even when they don’t want to.”

There is a lot of evidence to show how women’s leadership skills in business have been effectively embraced elsewhere across the globe to achieve maximum success.

US-based company Walmart recently announced that it bought $20bn worth of goods and services from domestic, women-owned businesses over the last five years.

Kathleen Mclaughlin, Chief Sustainability Officer for Walmart praised women-led enterprises saying: “We’ve found that products from women-led companies have better sell-through rates and better margins.”

The traits and characteristics we researched in this survey are key to the success of these businesses.

So for forward-thinking businesses that are harnessing innovative practices like AI, big data etc, why is the endorsement of women’s leadership qualities so difficult?

The management consultancy firm, Oliver Wyman, has predicted from a study involving 281 financial services from 32 countries that at the current rate of growth, the global sector won’t reach 30% female executive committee representation until 2048. Perhaps the underlying issue is that too many businesses have grown and expanded with a male dynamic at their core.

Barnaby Parker, CEO of Venquis, the leading business change and transformation consultancy, says: “Culture is the issue at the heart of gender diversity in a range of industries, including financial services and technology, to name two. These sectors have essentially been designed, developed and implemented by men and consequently they’re often not very good at attracting women to work for them.”

Although it must be said that many businesses are equal opportunities recruiters, and openly support initiatives like female mentorships, training and networking, these are clearly not enough to affect change.

This is because a lot of companies fall into the trap of viewing issues like gender parity and diversity as a part of corporate social responsibility or fairness in the workplace, rather than a business opportunity.

Katharine Grantham, Senior Director of HSBC, admits, “Unfortunately few organisations seem to really pursue diversity for the sake of unlocking business performance. Many appear to be doing diversity as a box ticking exercise – this will not turn the dial.”

Challenging the idea that diversity is simply a tick-box procedure rather than a way of increasing productivity, is the key to unlocking the potential that females hold within business. 

One Response

  1. Is it really ‘news’ that
    Is it really ‘news’ that “there is a global underrepresentation (sic) of women”?
    Reaching a conclusion based on a global overview, is just poor research, not news.
    In many cultures women aren’t allowed to do many things, that in the UK are taken for granted as rights. In the UK there is nothing barring women from reaching the top. Quotas and ‘equality drives’ are nothing more than attempts to placate a in-built sense of justice. The real question that needs ‘research’ is do women want to be in these positions? Because if nothing is there to bar them, why not?
    If we base a hiring decision on the best person for the job, gender is not an issue. If there are no women in the running for the role, that’s not sexism, that’s just a representation of the market. And it is certainly not News worthy.
    “Women are more suited to leadership, but find it harder to reach the top” not really true, just symptomatic of looking at women who reached the top and then muddying the waters with a global view.

    From a female leader I know who I showed this article to:
    “This whole subject makes me so angry…..So cry me a river that a man got a job he was more qualified for than you.”

Author Profile Picture
Øyvind Martinsen

Head of the Department of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour

Read more from Øyvind Martinsen

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.