Thomas International, the people assessment specialists, asked for our help with a major new study. They were exploring whether the emotional intelligence and personality traits of female and male leaders differ. To do this they needed to assess director-level, female leaders in organisations with at least 100 employees.
They wanted the women to complete two assessments – the High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI) which would assess the women’s personality traits against those which have been found to be optimal for successful senior leaders, and a Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue).
Thomas would then benchmark the women’s results against a demographically, hierarchically and industry matched male senior leadership sample.
At NJR we have a very large talent pool of successful, senior female executives, so we asked if some might be willing to form part of the study’s 137-strong cohort. Many did, and the results of the ground-breaking research have now been analysed. Here are the highlights:
- There is no difference in the emotional intelligence or personality traits of male and female leaders
- Despite the stereotypes, female leaders are no more empathetic than male leaders, and male leaders are no more assertive and composed than female leaders.
- Against every measure including approach to risk, competitiveness, conscientiousness, assertiveness, emotion management, relationships and optimism, there is no discernible difference between successful male and female leaders.
- Contrary to popular opinion, the women haven’t needed to be more sensitive to get to the top and the men are no more likely to be risk-takers or competitive than the women in the study.
However, there is a striking difference in how these traits are perceived by people. On the road to the top, personality and emotional traits which are found in successful leaders, and which are perceived as good in men, are often interpreted as a fault in women.
For example: losing your cool and showing strong emotions is seen as passion when it’s a man, but as hysteria when it’s a woman; Standing your ground and being direct is seen as assertive when it’s a man, bossy when it’s a woman.
Also, women are expected to be more serious at work if they want to be seen as ‘leadership material’; being too happy is seen as ‘flighty’ and ‘not having what it takes’.
Are the traits helpful to careers?
As a second phase in the study, data from over 18,000 senior leaders was analysed to identify to what degree personality and emotional intelligence traits actually help male and female employees reach senior management positions.
Again there are some career advantages that benefit men much more than women.
- For men, age and education predict 25% of why a man is in a senior role.
- These ‘career boosts’ don’t work so well for women; indeed age and education are 150% more likely to predict why a man is a senior leader compared to a woman.
- Instead women are judged much more on their personality – if this isn’t viewed as ‘right’ they will find it tough to get ahead.
Jayson Darby, Head of Psychology at Thomas International, says: “Women in business can’t seem to catch a break, even if they possess the traits that predict success they have to contend with stereotypes and biases that turn those advantages into negatives. We also observed evidence that the ‘old boys club’ is still an influencing factor, with women benefiting far less from age and education-related privilege. A man with an Oxbridge degree will be offered a huge advantage in their career efforts compared to a woman with an equivalent qualification, even if she has better leadership traits.”