But do they really? The duo’s write-up for Harvard Business Review prompted hundreds of responses from readers, many of whom debated the results of the study, and has been one of the most-read articles on the site over the last 30 days. On Leadership’s Jena McGregor spoke with Folkman and Zenger to learn more about their research and the response to it. An edited excerpt of our conversation follows.
How did this study come about?
Jack Zenger: We were obviously interested in the question of why, as you move up organizations, there are successively smaller percentages of women in those ranks. Is there any sound reason for that? Why is management making these decisions? There are functional areas that have been traditional male bastions — sales, IT, engineering — is there any rational reason for that [in terms of employee performance]?
How did your study confirm or deny what we tend to think about women in leadership?
Joseph Folkman: Intuitively, when most people first hear about [our study] they say okay, yes, so women will be more nurturing, or do better on other leadership qualities typically associated with women. What was fascinating was it’s true — they were more nurturing, on average — and yet we also found that the two competencies in which women were most ahead of men were “taking initiative” and “practicing self-development.” They did particularly well on competencies like “driving for results.” So this idea we have that women are just nicer [is misguided]. These women are hard driving.
The reality, I think, is that when you look at the top two competencies, you start to draw this conclusion that women are more motivated. They’re not assuming that things are going to be handed to them. When people give them feedback, they use it. Sometimes men just assume they will have things handed to them on a silver platter. I find in my own interviews with women that they have almost a paranoia: “I earn everything I get. If I don’t perform, I’m out of here. If I drop the ball, it’s noticed.” I don’t know whether it’s true or not. But I think that attitude might stimulate them to try harder. It’s the desire part of this that’s really interesting.
What finding interested you most?
JF: It’s always fun to find things that are counter-intuitive. These stereotypes that we have about women leaders are shattered by the data. You would have thought the areas where women would have excelled would be areas like customer service. But it was actually one of the few places where men excelled [in our study]. The second big “aha” from the study is that, although there is a lot of concern on the part of CEOs about finding an adequate supply of talented people to carry the organization into the future, they’re actually sitting on this huge resource that is not being very well utilized.