“Knowledge is power.” While most often associated with politics or high-level corporate maneuvering, this familiar cliché also neatly sums up a fundamental truth for those charged with managing enterprise education and leadership development. Every learning and development experience you deliver — and its power to transform — depends on what you know about the experience, expectations, needs and motivations of the learner. Now, research indicates gender biases also might play a significant role in how junior and senior managers respond to leadership development initiatives and, therefore, how your learning organization designs and delivers them.
Recent findings from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that half of all managers and administrators in today’s corporations are women, although fewer than 10 percent of top leaders in Fortune 500 companies are women. Executives tasked with managing leadership development and succession planning initiatives know the host of challenges associated with designing and deploying a successful program, including the imperative to develop and promote men and women in a fair and unbiased manner. What might be less obvious are the gender-based biases that can influence the ultimate success of enterprise education and development efforts aimed at building leadership bench strength.
A study conducted by International Survey Research (ISR) provides insight into the differing perceptions and expectations of men and women as they progress through the management ranks. Drawing on the results of employee opinion surveys, the findings reveal the issues that engage male leaders and female leaders are not identical — one size will not fit all. For instance, engagement among female senior leaders relies on their ability to meet business objectives successfully, whereas engagement among senior male leaders depends upon perceived opportunities for personal advancement. Understanding these differences is critical to tailor learning and development programs to meet the needs of both men and women with leadership ambitions.
Data for the study came from companywide employee opinion surveys of 11 multinational organizations drawn from diverse business sectors such as financial services, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, retail and technology. At the senior-management level, 2,157 male leaders and 731 female leaders responded. At the junior-management level — defined as any leader not considered senior management who has direct reports — 19,481 male leaders and 12,646 female leaders responded.
Male and Female Junior Leaders: Key Issues Driving Engagement
Figure 1 shows which issues generated the strongest engagement levels for male and female leaders at the junior level. For male junior leaders, the most frequently occurring topic is quality of leadership, which occurs in 27.5 percent of all results, followed closely by reward and empowerment (each occurring 17.5 percent of the time) and image (15 percent). Male junior managers in the study are more engaged when they think they work for a winning company with strong leadership and a positive image in the marketplace, and they receive both adequate reward for their efforts and empowerment in their work.
For female junior leaders, the ordering is not the same. Empowerment is the most frequently occurring topic (23.8 percent), followed by supervision (19 percent) as well as career development and work-life balance (each 9.5 percent). These findings suggest female junior leaders in the study are more engaged when they feel empowered in their jobs, think they are managed by an effective supervisor, have transparent career-path opportunities and can manage work-life balance and job stress concerns.
The keys to engagement for male leaders and female leaders at the junior level are similar only in that both groups seek empowerment in their work. The importance of involvement and authority in the job is not surprising given these leaders need to demonstrate their skills and abilities to move ahead. They desire autonomy to showcase their leadership competencies.
Beyond empowerment, however, the keys to engagement are quite distinct by gender. Male junior leaders want to think they work for a winning company with highly effective leaders who help promote a strong company image in the marketplace. For female junior leaders, image (0 percent) and leadership (4.8 percent) barely make a mark among the key issues. Similarly, reward, which includes questions about pay and nonmaterial recognition, is among the top issues for male junior leaders, but it barely registers for their female colleagues (4.8 percent). Among women at the junior level, supervision and career opportunities are important concerns and occur as key issues at frequencies far exceeding those for male leaders at this level. In fact, among male junior leaders, supervision topics represent only 5 percent of the key issues, and career development topics never emerge as critical. Finally, perhaps reflecting the work-life balance issues of female junior leaders, this topic is among the most important issues for women but is a low-frequency topic for men (2.5 percent).
Male and Female Senior Leaders: Key Issues Driving Engagement
These distinctions in the key issues by gender are even more apparent at the senior leadership level. Figure 2 shows which issues generated the strongest engagement levels among male and female leaders at the senior level. For both men and women, working for a company with strong leadership effectiveness is the most critical issue to ensure engagement. This topic is most frequent among the key issues for both women (23.8 percent of all results) and men (26 percent). The importance of perceived leadership quality and effectiveness is not surprising given these employees have now moved into the top ranks of leadership and evaluate their fit within the existing senior leadership team.
Beyond the common top-occurring issue of leadership, the results diverge considerably. For female senior leaders, three of the next six issues by importance are a collection of topics that together reflect a leader’s ability to succeed at business execution. These topics include the quality of working relationships in work teams (with a frequency of 14.3 percent), customer quality focus and communication (both at 9.5 percent). The other three issues are consistent with the key topics for female junior leaders — namely, empowerment, supervision and career development (all at 9.5 percent).
Business execution topics show female senior leaders are concerned about how business success is accomplished. The specific survey questions of most importance in these areas address:
These findings suggest women at the senior level are engaged when they work in an environment designed for success, meaning they have in place the strong employee relations, procedures, policies and alignment with goals needed for high performance. Female senior leaders are focused on the ability of their teams to grow and succeed, and they likely assume team success will mean individual success for them as emerging members of the senior leadership cadre.
The key themes differ for male senior leaders. Beyond the common top-frequency issue of leadership, engagement among male senior leaders is driven by career development opportunities (with a frequency of 19.4 percent), supervision (12.9 percent) and reward (9.7 percent).
The specific survey questions of most importance in these areas address:
This set of topics collectively represents a concern with personal advancement among senior male leaders. They are more engaged when they work in a company that provides them with growth potential, puts a premium on promoting long-term employees, pays them fairly compared with colleagues and communicates clear corporate strategy.
Also significant are the issues with especially low frequency among male and female senior leaders. Specifically, reward — although fourth in importance for men — never appears as a key topic for women at the senior level. Work-life balance, among the top issues for women at the junior level, is absent as a key issue among female senior leaders. Work-life balance does emerge with moderate frequency (6.5 percent), however, among male senior leaders. These patterns suggest women at the junior level might take the steps necessary to resolve work-life concerns at this key developmental phase of their careers, whereas this issue only begins to gain relevance for men at the most senior levels. Finally, company image, which is a critical issue for male junior leaders, is nearly absent among the top issues for male senior leaders (with a frequency of 3.2 percent), and it remains absent from the key issues for female senior leaders.
Conclusion and Implications
These findings indicate the issues that engage male and female leaders in their jobs differ: A one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development likely will prove ineffective. The results are particularly informative at the senior level. As men and women seek to advance to the top rungs of the leadership ladder, they require different motivators: Men seek a context in which they can continue to develop and are rewarded handsomely for doing so, and women seek an environment where they are well-equipped to succeed at business execution.
In light of these findings, an effective leadership development strategy would target both sets of aspirations. Leadership competency models that hold managers responsible for business success (within an environment that provides the tools to achieve that end) should appeal to female leaders and provide a template to evaluate all leaders equally. Strategy executed within an environment that offers clear opportunities to grow and advance and that links development directly to reward — characteristics that should appeal especially to men — provides all leaders, regardless of gender, learning and development opportunities that can further their career ambitions.
Patrick Kulesa, Ph.D., is the global research director of ISR. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.