April 3, 2021
The Curious Case of Women’s Strategic Thinking
I have a very curious case that my colleague Joe Folkman and I found in our data, a case we need some help settling.
We invite all readers to adopt a Sherlock Holmes mentality to see if we might collectively find more answers.
We found that while women generally outperform their male counterparts on most leadership competencies, they are not perceived by their managers, peers, and subordinates as being as adept at strategic thinking as their male counterparts. This gap between women and men in perceived strategic thinking skills begins early, but by age 50, the difference vanishes.
We do not fully understand why this issue occurs, nor the clear way to resolve it. These are the bare bones of the case:
Importance of this Fact
Organizations are seeking greater diversity and gender equality, major elements of diverse and inclusive organizations yet one study pointed out that there are more CEOs with the name John, than there are women CEOs. In fact, the number of female CEOs in the US hovers around 4%– just 4%.
This disparity is critical to understand not only for the sake of fostering more inclusive work environments but also when considering the shortage of qualified leadership as the economy moves out from under the struggles of the pandemic. Imagine if we are able to recruit leaders from a pool 2x bigger at least. We would be getting more diverse talent and we would be able to train earlier.
The gap between males and females’ strategic thinking abilities must be addressed because strategic thinking is often the most powerful skill to lift leaders into even higher management roles. A mid-level accounting manager can be very effective and not be strategic in their thinking. An effective senior executive cannot. If a woman is not likely to embody this competency early in her career she will be overlooked when companies are recruiting until that woman is nearing retirement. The pool for recruitment is minuscule.
The Anomaly of Strategic Thinking
This is not about peers’ perceptions that women do not have what it takes to be leaders. In fact, we consistently find in our research that women are more effective than men on 13 of our 19 competencies measured.
With one study we used 360-degree evaluations of effectiveness by each participant’s manager, peers, direct reports, and others with each participant being evaluated by 13 raters on average. In an updated study, we had 47,814 men and 24,028 women and used an experimental design randomly selecting 50% of the population.
In both studies, we conclude that women are often more effective leaders than men.
In both of those studies, however, we also found that men were more competent at two competencies, Strategic Perspective and Technical Acumen. This is neither an anomaly nor is it the point that we find perplexing. What is strange is this: strategic thinking and age seem to be related for women or to put it more bluntly, women-only start excelling at strategic thinking later in life.
● The graph below shows the results of a study looking at strategic perspective comparing men and women by age groups. Once again, we did the study with the full dataset and with a 50% randomly selected sample. The * on the graph below represents groups where differences were statistically significant in both studies.
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Women below age 50 were rated significantly less positively than men on their strategic perspective, but above age 50, they are perceived to be at approximately the same level as men.
Furthermore, our research found that this pattern of increasing capability with age is highly irregular. Nowhere else does age factor in the development of other leadership competencies. The study below shows the overall leadership effectiveness rating, which is the average of all 19 competencies collectively.
Note that women are rated more positively in general early on in their career, but this was not the case on a strategic perspective.
The curious elements that surround this mystery are:
A Possibly Important Clue
There is one important dimension in which women exhibit a similar pattern. It is the quality of possessing a high level of self-confidence.
Our data shows that women start from a much lower point than men, but then as their careers progress and time moves on, their self-confidence increases and when they reach later middle-age, their confidence is approximately equal to males.
Is there a close relationship between strategic thinking and self-confidence? Does each reinforce the other?
*Data from 11,556 leaders 46% Male, 64% Female – 59% US, 5% Canada, 15% Europe, 7% South America, 11% Asia, 1% Africa
Our motivations for unraveling this mystery begin with seeking to level the playing field. How can we increase women’s career success? What could be done to increase women’s interest in and comfort with strategic thinking? Is it the language they use, the metaphors they select or the metaphors they are not privy to understanding, or the people with whom they seek to engage? Would an earlier focus on enhancing self-esteem and self-confidence assist in this process? We believe it would.
We invite the insights of others with new and different perspectives to weigh in. The topic is essential and we believe it can be solvable.
( This article first appeared on Forbes.)
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