Is strong leadership a question of gender?

The last in the 2nd series of Borgen was shown on the BBC last weekend. If you haven’t seen it I can recommend this show highly. I have loved it throughout but imagine my surprise when the Danish show posed the question “Can a woman be Prime Minister?” simply because the main character had taken a month break from her job as PM to look after her sick daughter. Now I do think there would be questions to answer if David Cameron were to take a month away from his job. I doubt however we would call into question the ability of those of him or those of his gender to be top dog. Do you?
Borgen’s lead character thankfully made short shrift of the suggestion putting her opponents well and truly in their place. It does make us think perhaps that if we have not fully thought through what makes a good leader within our organisation then we will always judge leaders by the generic traits of vision, direction and energy. These according to Ulrich and Smallwood in “Building a Leadership Brand” (HBR July/August 2007) lead to a “misguided focus on the individual”. Now in some cases this might work for the individual. The “celebrity leader” can make an entity very successful.
Sometimes however the “celebrity leader” can swamp the organisation. To quote a woman PM who would never have put up with gender related insinuations “This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated”. Her qualities were admired but as leader and face of the UK Brand at home and abroad was Margaret Thatcher synonymous with the UK brand or did her individual personal qualities overwhelm the brand? This is not to say it is a bad thing for the brand at the time but when the leader goes the brand may suffer and as Ulrich and Smallwood (HBR July/Aug 2007) highlight a distinction must be drawn between leaders and leadership. Now you would have thought that a woman leader taking a short amount of time off to care for her daughter would really fit with the Danish brand.
The fact is that in Borgen the question of whether a woman can be Prime Minister was asked by a man. This is not necessarily surprising as research shows that men do rate women lower in some leadership competency areas than they would rate another man. In research published by Talent Innovations’ Elva and Mark Ainsworth in 2012 (link), women are seen as being stronger at managing activities, taking personal responsibility and empathising with others, whilst men are seen as being more commercially hard-nosed and having strategic vision. These are not definitive facts but simply identifiable differences in how men and women rate each other and themselves when it comes to leadership competencies.
So it turns out I shouldn’t have been surprised when watching Borgen that a man should rate a woman’s leadership competence lower than another man’s. We should only be surprised if the employer organisation does not seek to understand and embrace the differences between male and female leadership styles. We shall have to wait for Series 3 now to find out what the Danish people think of their PM’s leadership style as an election has been called in Borgen. I can’t wait.
Alicen Stenner


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