Editor’s Note: Michelle P. King is the director of Inclusion at Netflix and the author of The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
As the entire world works to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the role of effective leadership has been brought into razor sharp focus. What people need now are leaders with empathy, compassion and an ability to show support — skills that women leaders tend to exhibit more than men. While it may take a global pandemic to finally acknowledge the unique talents and capabilities women leaders offer, companies shouldn’t wait until there is a crisis to afford women an opportunity to lead.
While there is insufficient data to conclude that women world leaders are managing the Covid-19 pandemic more effectively, the emerging trends are hard to ignore. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been widely praised for her clear, bold and supportive approach to flattening the curve. The results of her clear communication — 20 deaths in a country of nearly 5 million people — speak for themselves. Or consider German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has called for and established unity in the nation’s response to the virus. Taiwan and Norway’s national responses to this crisis have also proved to be effective to date, and they all have one thing in common — women leaders.
It’s a trend we’ve seen before. The 2008 financial crash and resulting crisis was a result of irresponsible risk taking that ultimately came down to leadership and organizational priorities. Research examining risk-taking behavior finds that men are more prone to taking higher risks. Increased collective risk-taking behavior contributed to the crisis, which was an outcome of male-dominated workplaces that valued individual achievement and competition rather than collective well-being. Subsequent research found that women tend to adopt a more relational approach to leadership, which is more effective in a crisis compared to the more traditional command-and-control style of leadership typically adopted by men. Overall, women leaders adopt a relational style when leading through a crisis, which is highly effective as they focus on building trust, alleviating fears and managing the crisis at hand.
These lessons extend beyond crisis situations and into the everyday modern workplace. Research has consistently found women tend to adopt a more transformational leadership style, which includes demonstrating compassion, care, concern, respect and equality. In contrast, men have a more transactional approach, which includes a more task-focused, achievement-oriented and directive style of management.
But despite having demonstrated a more effective leadership style, women are put forward for fewer leadership positions and the roles they are given tend to be riskier. It’s a phenomenon known as the “glass cliff.” One of the key reasons for this is that risky roles are often considered a good fit for women, even though the chances of failure are higher. The underlying assumption is that women can manage difficult situations because they know how to assume the caretaker role and manage a lack of social support. In other words, women are used to not being set up for success and having to make the best of it. Because women have less access to leadership opportunities, these risky leadership roles are hard to turn down.
The better leadership opportunities, meanwhile, are reserved for men — something researchers refer to as the “glass cushion.” Because men make up most of the leadership positions in organizations, they have access to a wide range of informal (predominantly male) networks, mentors and sponsors who support them. This social support protects men from riskier positions, and, more importantly, provides men with access to leadership opportunities with a higher chance of success. While women leaders may be highly effective during a crisis, workplaces shouldn’t wait until they are failing to invite women to lead. Having more women in leadership positions is likely to prevent failure from happening in the first place.
Covid-19, its economic fallout and technological shifts to the workforce are huge challenges we all face. We don’t need to keep relying on one style of leadership to see us through unprecedented crises or everyday challenges. If we want to survive — and ultimately thrive — in the new normal, we should make sure women leaders are at the table.