The Extremely Curious Case Of Women’s Strategic Thinking

April 3, 2021

Women Strategic Thinking

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:

  1. Past research confirms that strategic thinking is one of the few traits or behaviors that separates senior executives from those in the middle or lower levels.
  2. Women are underrepresented in the senior ranks of business leaders.
  3. While probably not the only reason for their underrepresentation in senior ranks, we believe this is a factor.
  4. We seek to understand why this difference occurs, and more importantly, how it might be removed.

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:

  • The element of time and the fact that women start their career with a disadvantage of not being as competent in strategic thinking. Imagine two runners on a racetrack engaged in a 100-yard dash, and one has a starting position 20 yards behind the other. What caused the woman to start from behind in this competency?
  • Is it cultural? Does society create an environment in which women are not encouraged or expected to deal with the bigger picture, macro issues, or to think longer-term vs. shorter-term?
  •  Is it genetic? Is there something about strategic thinking that comes easier to men than to women?
  • Is it exposure and experience? Are men given more experience and exposure to strategic issues earlier in their career than women?

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

Conclusion

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.

-Jack Zenger

( This article first appeared on Forbes.)

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