My seatmate on a San Francisco-New York flight was talking about how to equalize the gender ratio among business leaders. My friend, director of a 600-person division that innovates services for a global technology company, felt that singling out of women for preferential treatment creates another problem: “It enhances the perception of women as the weaker gender, who need special help. The solution is not around magnifying the difference – it’s about removing the difference.”
The worst case scenario: promoting women simply in the interest of gender fairness, who do not have the requisite skill set and who then fail in those positions.
There’s a better strategy for equalizing the gender gap in leadership: build women’s leadership strengths – and men’s too.
First, some background. Data from companies worldwide shows that the competencies that distinguish leaders in the top ten percent of performance from average ones are weighted heavily toward the emotional intelligence range.
And, on average, norms for women on tests for emotional intelligence are higher than for men. Much of that advantage is because women score more highly on some social skills and on emotional empathy – indicators of social awareness and relationship management. Men, on the other hand, tend to do better on assessments of confidence and managing distressing emotions – a different range of emotional intelligence competencies: self-management.
In general, with any gender difference we’re talking about largely overlapping Bell curves. And such gender differences tend to disappear among star leaders, those in the top ten percent of business performance, according to soon-to-be-published data analyzed by Ruth Malloy, head of the global leadership unit at Hay Group. The men in this star group tend to be more empathic and socially skilled than most men, and the women as confident and emotionally resilient as the men.
So why not help high potential early career employees – men and women alike – develop strengths in this skill set? This approach builds high performance into the ranks of an organization’s future leaders.
Over the holiday I saw my niece, Naomi Wolf, a leading thinker on gender issues. She told me about training work she’s done with early career potential leaders. “When I train young women, I often see patterns of speech and self-presentation that they have been socialized to adapt in their younger years to be seen as ‘nice’, but that undercut their effectiveness in the job market and for promotions.”
One common pattern: seeming hesitant to offer an opinion or introducing their remarks by an apology or equivocation like, “I’m no expert, but…” Or, Naomi says, another pattern is “peppering their speech with the intonation of a question, which dials down the likelihood of their being put in a position of authority.
“I wouldn’t want anyone with poor presentation skills like these to represent my business,” Naomi told me.
For several years she has worked with successive classes of Rhodes Scholars on these skills. “It doesn’t matter how talented someone is if they can’t present their talents well,” she noted.
In the leadership training she’s done with young people, Naomi says, “we’ve found that with just a short session they are able to let go of these socially imposed patterns and find a true voice for themselves.”
An enterprising company could offer such training programs to help high potential early career employees boost emotional intelligence-based leadership competencies like self-confidence and emotional resilience, listening and collaboration. That should build a deeper pool of candidates for leadership positions.
If that company also made these leadership capabilities the basis of promotion decisions – and date shows this is a smart HR strategy in any case — women in general are likely to be somewhat favored in advancement. And all those promoted for these reasons – men and women alike – will be leaders who strengthen company performance.
It’s a win-win for a company’s leadership future and gender parity alike.
His more recent books are The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights and Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence – Selected Writings (More Than Sound). Leadership: A Master Class is Goleman’s comprehensive video series that examines the best practices of top-performing executives.