Could Women be More Effective Leaders than Men over 40?

For many years, it has been clear that the number of female senior leaders in the organisational world, both public and private sector has been disproportionally low compared to men. There are many factors that drive this from talent identification and promotion often favouring men due to the criteria adopted, a lack of female candidates due to the educational system tending to promote certain sectors or roles as being more appropriate for women and simple self-selection by women reflecting where they prefer to work. Steps are being taken to address all these but there is still a lingering, yet false, assumption amongst some that men make better leaders than women.

Societal change has driven the transformation of our organisations to become places where command and control is no longer a way to optimise performance.

Organisational success in general terms is now more likely to be delivered by a consultative and relationship-focused approach based on employee engagement which ensures employees genuinely care about the outcome rather than just do the job.

There is strong evidence that this approach more closely fits the natural style which women adopt rather than the more overtly competitive approach taken by many men. That’s not to say men are not able to be consultative and relationship-focused its merely that as a group fewer of them seem effective in the approach than women. At its heart, it’s about good leadership which inspires and engages people to give their best whether it’s delivered by men or women. Good leadership is good leadership.

Research by Zenger & Folkman from 2011 and updated in 2019 clearly shows that women are more effective in most of the top competencies of good leadership than men, from taking initiative to driving for results and inspiring and motivating others to building relationships.  For full study.

But very interestingly these differentials are not constant. Everyone changes over their careers and develops capability. Here the additional analysis is even more revealing and perhaps challenging for men. By looking at the ages of those in the study it’s possible to track the differences between men and women in terms of their leadership capability at different stages in their career.

At the start of careers around 20 both men and women have the same level of leadership effectiveness, however by about 25 men were more effective than their female colleagues, but from that point on women develop and catch up and by age 40 they on par with men. After that, they become increasingly more effective than men to a peak of around 9% more effective at 60 from where on the differential then declines.

When women add their natural emotional intelligence, at this stage lacking in many men, they have a winning combination that accelerates them ahead.

From my 35 years of career experience in the military, business and Government much of it identifying and developing leaders, especially strategic leaders, this pattern is reflective in what I have seen. Young men strongly pushing ahead in their careers initially and, in general, women taking more time to quietly build their capability and often confidence. At about 40 this experience and confidence have got to the level where it can be used as effectively as men use theirs. When women add their natural emotional intelligence, at this stage lacking in many men, they have a winning combination that accelerates them ahead. However, it’s not all downhill for men, as the gap closes again after 60, by which time many men have learnt the lessons and worked out the secret of success, that it’s more about the leader inspiring people to care and give their best not just telling them to do the job.

This dynamic is not only interesting for women to know that post 40 they are potentially more effective as leaders than men but it poses many other questions that need to be considered in order to make our leaders and thus organisations more effective. Two which clearly come to mind are how can we help women build their experience and above all confidence so they are as good as men in their 20s and then how can we help men more effectively build their self-awareness to be more relationship-focused so they are as good as women from 40 to 60.

But again this is probably a dynamic that is already moving anyway as those currently at these points in their careers are going to be replaced by new generations soon who take a different view. As millennials get more senior and generation z become a large part of the workforce and take up their first management roles the ability to inspire and get people to care about outcomes so they give their best is going to become more and more important. Luckily those in junior leadership roles are likely to come from the same generation as their teams so agreement on how leadership will work best is likely.

As always it is the gap between the perspectives of senior leaders and others where the generational gaps will be largest and the risk of misalignment in effective leadership approach greatest. But the moral for senior male leaders between 40 and 60 seems to be maybe, just maybe, your female colleagues could be an example to watch counter to the now-discredited myth that men are better leaders than women.

This is the 3rd in my series of articles on women in leadership. See the first two below ⤵︎

Why Women Succeed as Leaders Better Than Many Men

More Women – More Success


Author’s Note:The full study and HBR article on which this is based can be read here.


Chris Roebuck
Chris Roebuck
Chris Roebuck is a speaker, advisor and executive coach who has a unique approach that helps leaders, teams, and organisations reach their full potential and be successful in just three steps. This is proven to add investor value, deliver better customer service, build the brand externally, develop innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, optimise risk and boost the bottom line by 10% + at no cost. Chris unique experience as a leader in the military, business, government and as a Hon Visiting Professor of Transformational Leadership has enabled him to develop this innovative, entrepreneurial and highly effective new approach for leaders and organisations to achieve success: I CARE Leadership. It’s simply about you being the leader people always give their best for empowered by authentic and inspirational servant leadership. Chris shows how building on leaders current knowledge via simple, practical day to day actions can immediately deliver real improvements at all levels; individual, team, and organisation. One organisation who implemented it increased the number of staff happy to recommend it as “a great place to work” to friends or family in 2 years from 40% to 82%, an exceptional change, and increased revenue by 40%. When Global Head of Leadership at UBS, 70,000 staff & 100 countries, his team helped the bank transform organisational performance to increase profitability by 235%, market capitalisation by 50% and win awards. This is now a Harvard Case Study. Chris experience spans many sectors and geographies; from having held senior roles in UBS, HSBC, KPMG & London Underground to advising legal firms and construction, from the UK National Health Service of 1.4m staff and UK Government to the Red Cross in Myanmar, from Investment banks in London to Middle East Telecoms, from the Chinese Space Programme to retail in USA and many more. Chris has been quoted as a business leadership expert globally in the Harvard Business Review China, FT, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, New York Times, Business Week, Time Magazine, Washington Post, Times of India, Straits & Gulf Times and many other titles. He has been interviewed on TV over 350 on leadership and business issues on BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, and other channels and his books have been translated into 11 languages. Chris has been recognised as one of the Most Influential HR Thinkers regularly since 2011 by the HR profession.

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