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Are women better leaders than men?

Columnist Dave Conrad says in the battle of the sexes, you want to pick the right gender.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
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Dear Dave,

My husband and I are debating whether or not women make better leaders than men. I say they do, and you can imagine what he thinks. What do you think? Or are you like my husband and will take the men’s side?

— K

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Dear K,

First, let me say … “You’re killing me and no matter how I answer this, I am setting myself up for danger.” But I am going to take a stab at this and – obviously – I will be bold enough or stupid enough to have my thoughts and findings posted in my favorite newspaper, the Post Bulletin.


My risk is if I lean toward your husband’s position, I will need someone to start my car each morning. And if I move toward your position, I will be lynched, be forced to take a testosterone test, and be flogged in a man cave while having to watch a continuous film loop of “Spartacus.”

To be an “avoidance wimp,” let me state that I believe any person – no matter what gender they are – has the capacity to be an effective leader in both small and big ways. Throughout history we have seen the marvelous leadership displayed by women including Mother Theresa, Clara Barton, and Rosa Parks. You’ll notice I am staying nonpolitical here.

So, in a somewhat questionable attempt to be “objective,” I will take the position of … ”it depends.” Some “leadership experts” claim (and these experts include men) that women have the advantage over men for being the best leaders, because they are best at forming relationships and consensus, and dealing more effectively on an interpersonal level. I believe those skills are vital and learnable.

In opposition, other “experts” claim men make the best leaders (and this pack of experts includes women), because men are more dominant, decisive, and driven. I invite these experts to come to my home and witness firsthand the dismantling of this belief.

Why women rule

Who can deny that Oprah is a leader and has moved, inspired, and increased the positivity of so many people? Who can deny that business leaders including Carly Fiorina (past Hewlitt Packard CEO) and Mary Kay Asch of Mary Kay Products fame have been instrumental in facing challenges that would rock the foundations of any leader? These women were bold, adventurous, smart, and strategic in their ability to lead and motivate people.

Some researchers have found, in large part, that women make most of the financial decisions, start most of the new businesses, are penetrating senior ranks more rapidly, and that women’s leadership strengths are exceptionally well-aligned with new organizational change needs and value-added essentials of modern economies.

Others claim women are better salespersons than men, consider people and human needs more when making decisions, and tend to be substantially superior at planning, organizing, and covering details. Sounds like essential skills to me.

Personally, I just had the honor and privilege of chairing my class reunion, and the smartest thing I did was to contact several of my women classmates to see if they had an interest in joining the reunion planning committee. I chose women that I knew to be driven, detailed, collaborative, and unafraid to take on tough challenges. I was correct in my choosing them, because they knew how to get busy and put things together. Oh, I did choose one man, too. The reunion was successful, and every detail was accomplished.


Why men rule

I asked one of my Rochester women colleagues whether or not men really rule the planet and she said, “We just let them think they do.” Why did I expect a response similar to that?

In defense of men as leaders, some experts believe men are less emotional and deal with purpose more than personalities. Others have found that men tend to be more objective and look at facts over feelings. Additionally, findings suggest men are more prone to being overtly confrontational and lay things out in the open, so decisions can be made quickly and decisively.

Many leadership researchers believe male leaders will be seen as decisive and powerful, when using a strong, authoritarian style. Males tend to focus on the current task better and they can directly coordinate perceptions and actions better than their female counterparts. Study also show that male leaders are more inclined towards action than analysis.

In summary – and I have been thinking a great deal on how to end this response both diplomatically and prudently – I believe the answer to your question is that it does not matter what gender you are to be a great leader; what matters is your ability to assess situations – the people, the tasks, and the implications and impact of a challenge – and act with intelligence and determination. These abilities are gender neutral.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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