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Women, it seems, are better bosses

By Mark Sappenfieldand Julie Finnin Day Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2001

It takes Marcie Waldron only a few moments to explain the difference between men and women in the workplace.

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Right now, she says, she's heading up a project at the architectural firm of DiMella Shaffer in Boston. All the members of the team are female, and when they meet, everyone takes part. They organize, parcel out responsibilities, and devise ways to check off tasks as the job progresses.

Things at her old firm, though, were different. Sitting at a granite table in a meeting room overlooking Boston Harbor, she tells of one project, led by a male architect, that was a study in frustration.

"Everyone would just sit around the table with their little calendars" and that's it, she says. There was no receptivity to group planning.

It's a telling comparison, and it comes at a time when more and more evidence suggests that women make better managers than men. For years, companies wanted leaders who took control - people who rumbled through boardrooms like panzer tanks, achieving their goal no matter what the odds or obstacles. Business was a war game, and men were seen as the best field commanders.

Today, a decade after the great wave of layoffs turned many workers into free agents with little corporate loyalty, businesses want teambuilders and communicators - people who create a relationship with employees and instill in them a commitment to the organization. Studies have repeatedly shown that this means women.

To be sure, generalizations can be dangerous - no one sex has a monopoly on character traits, and some studies show little difference between how men and women manage. Yet in many others, women consistently rank higher on qualities that are of increasing importance in today's transient workplace.

While this has yet to tilt the gender balance in Fortune 500 boardrooms, it has taken hold in

mid-level management, and colleagues are increasingly showing their appreciation for a more-female approach.

*More than 2,400 managers in 19 states rated women more highly than men in 17 of 20 leadership skills, according to a five-year study released in 1999 by Lawrence A. Pfaff and Associates in Kalamazoo, Mich. The skills included not only traits such as coaching, teamwork, and empowering employees - traditionally seen as women's strengths - but also decisiveness and planning.

*Women came out on top in 42 of 52 skills in a survey of 425 executives by Hagberg Consulting Group in Foster City, Calif.

*A study of 58,000 managers by Personnel Decisions in Minneapolis gave women the advantage in 20 of 23 measures.

*A survey of more than 6,400 questionnaires by Janet Irwin and Michael Perrault showed that women finished ahead in 28 of 31 management categories.

"Women tend to be much more comfortable with ambiguity, sharing information, and sharing responsibility - when you have to be flexible," says Judy Rosener, a professor at the University of California at Irvine's Graduate School of Management."And this flexibility is going to make women much more effective."

Cultural roots of gentler style

The reasons for women's rise in the esteem of American business are intimately linked with cultural and economic factors that have been building for more than a decade. For one, the recession of the 1980s and early 1990s forced companies to downsize and become leaner. Unwieldy hierarchies were largely replaced by a more team-oriented focus.

As a result, leadership has become more nurturing and inclusive. Now it's not just unilaterally deciding who gets to collate and who gets to copy. It's who's got the ability to foster collaboration. "The most effective management style today is a consultative-management style," says David Opton, founder of ExecuNet, a Norwalk, Conn., business that helps executives manage their careers. Good leaders are "people who are effective and good listeners."

It is this quality, perhaps more than any other, that research most strongly identifies with women. Even in studies that see men and women as similar leaders, the ability to listen to and include others' opinions stands out.

In one survey of marketing executives released by Westport, Conn.-based Copernicus in 1998, 73 percent of respondents said men make decisions without input from others, while only 20 percent said the same of women.