Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman

JUNE 25, 2019


For the first time in history, a major political party in the United States has several women who have

declared their candidacy to be their party’s presidential nominee. But TV pundits have been

questioning whether, despite the progress indicated by the huge influx of women elected into



Congress last fall, the U.S. is ever going to elect a woman to the country’s highest leadership


This is baffling to us, especially in light of what we see in our corporate research. In two articles from

2012 (here and here) we discussed findings from our analysis of 360-degree reviews that women in

leadership positions were perceived as being every bit as effective as men. In fact, while the

differences were not huge, women scored at a statistically significantly higher level than men on the

vast majority of leadership competencies we measured.

We recently updated that research, again looking at our database of 360-degree reviews in which we

ask individuals to rate each leaders’ effectiveness overall and to judge how strong they are on

specific competencies, and had similar findings: that women in leadership positions are perceived

just as — if not more — competent as their male counterparts.

Still, the disturbing fact is that the percentage of women in senior leadership roles in businesses has

remained relatively steady since we conducted our original research. Only 4.9% of Fortune 500

CEOs and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs are women. And those numbers are declining globally.

There are of course many factors that contribute to this dearth of women at senior levels. For

centuries, there have been broad, cultural biases against women and stereotypes die slowly. People

have long believed that many women elect not to aspire to the highest ranks of the organization and

take themselves out of the running (though recent research disputes that). Lots of research has

shown that unconscious bias places a significant role in hiring and promotion decisions, which also

contributes to the lower number of women in key positions.

Our current data presents even more compelling evidence that this bias is incorrect and

unwarranted. Women are perceived by their managers — particularly their male managers — to be

slightly more effective than men at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area of

the organization. That includes the traditional male bastions of IT, operations, and legal.

As you can see in the chart below, women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with

resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and

honesty. In fact, they were thought to be more effective in 84% of the competencies that we most



frequently measure.

According to our updated data, men were rated as being better on two capabilities —”develops

strategic perspective” and “technical or professional expertise,” which were the same capabilities

where they earned higher ratings in our original research as well.

Women Are Rated Better Than Men on Key Leadership Capabilities According to an analysis of thousands of 360-degree reviews, women outscored men on 17 of the 19

capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones.

Capability Women’s percentile Men’s percentile

Takes initiative 55.6 48.2

Resilience 54.7 49.3

Practices self-development 54.8 49.6

Drives for results 53.9 48.8

Displays high integrity and honesty 54.0 49.1

Develops others 54.1 49.8

Inspires and motivates others 53.9 49.7

Bold leadership 53.2 49.8

Builds relationships 53.2 49.9

Champions change 53.1 49.8

Establishes stretch goals 52.6 49.7

Collaboration and teamwork 52.6 50.2

Connects to the outside world 51.6 50.3

Communicates powerfully and prolically 51.8 50.7

Solves problems and analyzes issues 51.5 50.4

Leadership speed 51.5 50.5

Innovates 51.4 51

Technical or professional expertise 50.1 51.1




Develops strategic perspective 50.1 51.4


Interestingly, our data shows that when women are asked to assess themselves, they are not as

generous in their ratings. In the last few years we created a self-assessment that measures, among

other things, confidence. We’ve been collecting data since 2016 (from 3,876 men and 4,779 women

so far) on levels of confidence leaders have in themselves over their careers and we saw some

interesting trends.

When we compare confidence ratings for men and women, we see a large difference in those under

25. It’s highly probable that those women are far more competent than they think they are, while

the male leaders are overconfident and assuming they are more competent than they are. At age 40,

the confidence ratings merge. As people age their confidence generally increases; surprisingly, over

the age of 60 we see male confidence decline, while female confidence increases. According to our

data, men gain just 8.5 percentile points in confidence from age 25 to their 60+ years. Women, on

the other hand, gain 29 percentile points. One note: This is what we see in our data though we

recognize that there are studies that come to different conclusions on whether women truly lack

confidence at early stages in their career.

These findings dovetail with other research that shows women are less likely to apply for jobs unless

they are confident they meet most of the listed qualifications. A man and woman with identical

credentials, who both lack experience for a higher level position, come to different conclusions

about being prepared for the promotion. The man is more inclined to assume that he can learn what

he’s missing, while in the new job. He says to himself, “I am close enough.”  The woman is inclined

to be more wary, and less willing to step up in that circumstance.


org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified” rel=”nofollow”>



It’s possible that these lower levels of confidence at younger ages could motivate women to take

more initiative, be more resilient, and to be more receptive to feedback from others, which in turn

makes them more effective leaders in the long run.

We see a similar trend in women’s perceptions of their overall leadership effectiveness, with their

rating rising as they get older. This data is from a study that includes 40,184 men and 22,600 women

and measures the overall effectiveness rating of males and females on 49 unique behaviors that

predict a leaders effectiveness. Again, women at younger ages rate themselves significantly lower

than men but their ratings climb — and eventually supersede those of men — as they get older.




This data continues to reinforce our observations from our previous research — women make highly

competent leaders, according to those who work most closely with them — and what’s holding them

back is not lack of capability but a dearth of opportunity. When given those opportunities, women

are just as likely to succeed in higher level positions as men.

Keep in mind that our data is mostly perceptions of current and past behavior and performance.

That’s different than a promotional decision that involves movement to a higher position and

involves taking a bigger risk. If 96 out of 100 people currently serving in comparable positions are

male, and you are making the decision about who to promote, and you have a highly qualified

female and a highly qualified male, what are you inclined to do? It may seem safer to choose the


Leaders need to take a hard look at what gets in the way of promoting women in their organizations.

Clearly, the unconscious bias that women don’t belong in senior level positions plays a big role. It’s

imperative that organizations change the way they make hiring and promotion decisions and ensure



that eligible women are given serious consideration. Those making those decisions need to pause

and ask, “Are we succumbing to unconscious bias? Are we automatically giving the nod to a man

when there’s an equally competent woman?” And, as our data on confidence shows, there’s a need

for organizations to give more encouragement to women. Leaders can assure them of their

competence and encourage them to seek promotions earlier in their careers.

Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a coauthor of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable” and the book Speed: How

Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution (McGraw Hill, 2016). Connect with Jack at

Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a coauthor of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable” and the book Speed:

How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution (McGraw Hill, 2016). Connect with Joe at

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Lynne Copp 12 hours ago

Very good article, thank you. For the past five years I have been conducting a study based on my hypothesis “There is

no such thing as a glass ceiling, but there are toxins in the walls!” and the data is compelling. Your study adds to this

and confirms some of our specific findings. Unlike some of the other comments below, leaders are not born and

leaders are not all warriors. Leaders are custodians of leadership and that is a very different focus. Good leadership is

certainly needed in many aspects of our world today and followership is not a decision made by leaders, but by

followers. Winston Churchill once said “Leadership without followership is like the sound of one hand clapping”… Our

study maps the leadership environment in which women can succeed as great leaders, and defines the toxins that

prevent growth for both men and women. Alongside studies like your own, I am sure that we will soon map the

terrain in which women and men will succeed and I suspect that will be a different way of leading organisations too

…and a different yardstick to measure success other than the traditional…

Thanks again, insightful.


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