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The End of Men and the Rise of Women -- in the Workplace?

Leadership Style Differences and Ethics in the Workplace

I just finished reading the controversial book The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin. Her thesis is women are no longer behind men; “they have pulled decisively ahead by almost every measure.” Rosin’s main focus is on the workplace although she tackles sexual equality and education as well. Rosin’s book has created quite a stir including harsh criticism from Stephanie Coontz, a well-respected author and teacher of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. She challenges the notion that a new majority of female breadwinners are emerging, where middle-class wives take control over their husbands while demoralized single men take refuge in perpetual adolescence.

My goal is not to dispute the numbers cited by Rosin that appear to show female domination in fields such as accounting, or other findings. I also don’t dispute the fact that females study harder and are more driven to succeed. I know from first-hand experience this is a fact. Nearly two-thirds of my accounting students are female – a change from the one-third about ten years ago. The highest grades in my classes go to females.

The point of this blog is to explain why women are advancing at ever-increasing rates and the implications for corporate boardrooms and leadership.

The most important reason for recent successes is women are more focused at the task at hand. They strive to achieve more; climb the ladder of success; and increase their financial stability. I believe the trend we see today as posited by Rosin exists for some of the same reasons the U.S. successfully became an economic power during the mid-and late-twentieth century. Two words describe it – work ethic.

I believe women feel they have something to prove to themselves and others. Having been kept at bay for so long by society, women are flourishing in the workplace. In July 2012, Marissa Mayer was named the youngest CEO in the Fortune 500. Mayer's appointment means that the Fortune 500 now has 20 female CEOs, a new record. Compare that to the twelve CEOs back in May 2011, and the trend is unmistakable.

The “Glass Ceiling” that created a barrier to the advancement of women in most professions clearly has been cracked. I have blogged about it before noting that women comprised 46.8 percent of the total U.S. labor force in 2011 and are projected to account for more than 50 percent by 2018. This raises an interesting question about whether the workplace as we have known it for so long – dominated by men – will change as women advance to leadership roles.

Leadership studies of women are starting to identify the characteristics of women at work. Sally Helgesen, an internationally acclaimed author and speaker, compares similarities and differences in the ways women and men lead. She concluded that women work at a steady pace, view unscheduled interruptions as a part of work flow, make time for activities not focused on work, maintain a complex network of relationships, and focus on the “ecology of leadership,”  which  emphasizes  the  social  dimension,  a  vision  for  society,  and  time  for information sharing with others. Helgesen observed that women tend to frame a “web of inclusion” that is circular and inclusive, rather than hierarchical and exclusive.

Professor Judy Rosener found that men and women have distinctive leadership styles, with men more likely to view leadership as a sequence of transactions with others, whereas women are more transformational, using interpersonal skills to motivate followers rather than applying positional power or authority. Referring to this style as “interactive leadership,” Rosener states that women use relational skills to influence others, encourage participation, share power and information, and heighten followers’ self-esteem.

Other researchers, including leadership specialist Alice Eagly and colleagues, note that women lead in a more democratic and participative style than men, and argue that evaluation of women leaders’ effectiveness depends on several interacting variables including work context and culture.  

Assuming these studies accurately portray the leadership skills of women, the workplace may never be the same going forward. The interpersonal and relational skills that are identified as being a strength of women in the workplace call for a different set of values than the more single-focused approach to leadership of men. In particular, I believe women are more attuned to ethical issues in workplace relationships and better possess the communication skills so important to being an effective leader.

The major financial scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s occurred in companies with men at the helm. Of course, men disproportionately held positions of power at that time so we would expect to find such results. Nevertheless, it may be that ethical behavior in the workplace will improve over time as women assume positions of power and influence. A caveat is that organizational culture typically determines whether ethical or unethical behavior will occur. So, women need to change the culture of their organizations as they rise through the ranks to create lasting changes in ethics in the workplace.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 11, 2012