Does gender make a difference in terms of leadership? - A new study

Does gender make a difference in terms of leadership? – A new study

Gender and leadership

One of the often-asked questions is whether gender makes a difference in terms of leadership. There is a vast array of research looking at areas to do with gender and leadership, a proportion of which is in contention, with contradictory findings being reported. So, what is the current state of research about the relationship between gender and leadership?

A new study

A new (2020) review of the current research by researchers from the Schulich School of Business at York University in Canada and the Department of Management at the University of Central Florida looked at whether gender makes a difference in terms of leadership.

Primary findings

As can be expected, the relationship between gender and leadership is a complex one and requires the consideration of a wide range of factors.

Firstly, the review found that there are four primary leadership outcomes which need to be considered when looking at the impact of any factor, including gender, on leadership.

The four primary leadership measures

The four primary leadership outcomes/measures that have wide agreement in the research arena are:

  1. Leader emergence, which refers to the extent to which an individual tends to be seen as being “leader -like”.

2. Leader effectiveness. Measuring and understanding overall leadership effectiveness includes a range of measures:

a. Performance
b. Perceptions and ratings of leaders’ performance
c. Counting leadership behaviours that have been considered to be effective
d. Measures of organisational productivity and group/team performance

3. Group performance/organisational productivity measured by a range of factors including goal achievement, financial performance, et cetera.

4. Group longevity and survival, which refers to how long the leader’s team or organisation remains viable, relevant and competitive.

Leadership – does gender make a difference?

Leadership behaviours

The review found that across all research there are a series of leader behaviours which predict the achievement of leadership outcomes:

  • Task oriented behaviours
  • Relationship oriented behaviours
  • Change orientation
  • Learning orientation
  • Passive behaviours
  • Destructive behaviours
  • Job focus behaviours, including:
    • general job proficiency
    • personal discipline
    • proactivity and the demonstration of effort
    • communication capabilities
    • facilitating others and, in particular, team performance and peers
    • management skills
    • administration capability

Direct predictors of leaders’ behaviours

The review found that there were a series of knowledge, skills and attitudes which have been shown to both underpin and directly predict the emergence of leaders’ behaviours:

  • Knowledge
    • knowledge of role
    • knowledge of organisation
    • knowledge of people
    • self-awareness and knowledge of self
  • Skills
    • problem solving skills
    • divergent thinking skills
    • skills with metacognition, or the ability to think and recognise how they are thinking
    • interpersonal skills
    • negotiation skills
    • conflict management skills
  • Motivation/purpose/drives
    • desire to lead
    • the need for power
    • achievement drive or orientation
Female entrepreneur talking to her employees

Indirect predictors of leadership behaviours

The review found that there was agreement across the research in terms of the indirect predictors of leadership behaviours and, therefore, leadership outcomes which have a defining impact on the direct predictors as well:

• Intelligence
o cognitive ability
o cognitive flexibility
o emotional intelligence/emotion regulation capabilities
• Experience – the range of experience that a leader has, including experience of leadership, of a particular situation and within a particular sector or organisation
• Gender
• Personality, particularly in terms of
o extraversion
o agreeableness
o conscientiousness
o emotional stability
o openness
o self-monitoring
o resilience

The impact of gender on leadership outcomes

  • The researchers found that, across all of the research, there was no significant difference between the genders in terms of leadership effectiveness on any measure.
    • Whilst the research is largely in agreement that there is no significant difference between genders in their use and capability with leadership behaviours, studies have found that, particularly in stressful situations:
      • female leaders are significantly more likely to use a democratic style of leadership
      • male leaders are significantly more likely to use more autocratic leadership styles
  • The research on whether there are gender differences in terms of leadership knowledge and skill is an area of considerable research contention and ambiguity with no clear findings across the research.
  • In terms of leadership emergence, women are significantly less likely to emerge as leaders compared to men. Part of this reason appears to be a form of unconscious bias or sexism, whereby men tend to be rated more highly in terms of leadership capability than women, even though in reality there is no difference in the genders’ leadership effectiveness.

There are two primary reasons why women are significantly less likely to emerge as a leader, particularly in terms of putting themselves forward for leadership positions:

  1. Risk tolerance. There is good evidence to show that female leaders tend to be more cautious than their male counterparts in displaying leadership behaviours and decision making. Also female leaders hold less accurate and often more negative views of how others perceive their leadership behaviours compared to their male counterparts.
  2. Anticipated negative consequences. It has been found that female leaders tend to worry about negative reactions (backlash) to their decisions and leadership behaviours more than men and tend to engage in significantly fewer self-promotion behaviours than men.

However, it has also been found that women tend to be rated more highly than men on social leadership and in situations that require high levels of interpersonal skill – here women tend to be rated as better leaders.


Shen, W., & Joseph, D. L. (2020). Gender and leadership: A criterion-focused review and research agenda. Human Resource Management Review, 100765.

Leader’s individual differences and how they impact


Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

Be impressively well informed

Get the very latest research intelligence briefings, video research briefings, infographics and more sent direct to you as they are published

Be the most impressively well-informed and up-to-date person around...

Powered by ConvertKit
Like what you see? Help us spread the word

David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page