Women, it seems, are better bosses

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

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.

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"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.

But women's effectiveness as managers extends beyond their utility in new corporate structures. Women, many experts say, are more in tune with today's working environment. When workers saw their fathers, uncles, aunts, and friends laid off during the economic downturn of the early 1990s - by businesses they'd been a part of for years - priorities shifted: Life was not worth sacrificing for a paycheck.

More and more, mothers wanted longer maternity leave, fathers wanted time off to be with their children, others just wanted flex time to go hiking. If they didn't get it, unemployment in recent years has been so low that they could quit and find a better job.

It is an employment paradigm virtually unprecedented in modern history. "It used to be that males ran corporate America and had the attitude of 'My way or the highway.' That's not so anymore," says Joyce Gioia, president of the Herman Group, a management consulting group in Greensboro, N.C. "Because of the labor shortage, we can't afford to burn out our employees."

She notes that it costs $85,000 in training to replace a customer-service employee who makes $23,000 a year. She and others say women have shown a particular adeptness at keeping employees happy. Indeed, according to the Irwin study, women's greatest strength compared with men is responding to others' needs. "I have seen more employees who are literally devoted to women managers than are even connected to male managers," says Ms. Gioia.

Dina Hampton might not go so far as to pledge devotion to female bosses she's worked for, but the New York journalist says she'd definitely rather work for a woman. "Women have a real empathy as to the special challenges women face in the marketplace," says Ms. Hampton, an editor of the online publication Streetmail.com.

The female style of leadership, however, has not been a salve for every workplace. For men and women who have grown accustomed to a more autocratic style of managing, the switch to a softer tone can take adjustment. "It can create confusion in men - they don't realize they're being told what to do," says Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University in Washington.

It all began with kickball

This difference in communication is something that began back in recess and continues to play a role through adulthood, says Dr. Tannen. Girls who put themselves above others, she suggests, are frowned upon, while boys are pressed to stand out and speak authoritatively to win respect.

When these acculturated codes are broken, people become uneasy. A recent study by professors at Arizona State University West in Phoenix in found that employees - both male and female - were more likely to feel they were treated unfairly if disciplined by a female manager. Part of that, they surmised, was that women were seen as "overly aggressive" if they made the same points their male colleagues made.

It's a point that John Downie, a senior associate at DiMella Shaffer, agrees with. When a fellow female manager got mad at her staffers, they complained. "My first thought was, 'If that were me, they wouldn't have thought twice about it,' " he says.

In some male-dominated settings, pressures like these have led to women becoming more man-like in their leadership. Muriel Siebert, for one, says she had two personalities. The first woman to become a member of the New York Stock Exchange, in 1967, Ms. Siebert says she could not have succeeded without adapting to her surroundings.

"It was pretty difficult, if not impossible, to keep a feminine perspective in the business world," she says. "There were people who would have been shocked if I didn't use a four-letter-word."

From the stock exchange to the auto industry to information technology, research has shown that women have taken on more male qualities to survive. But, interestingly, a study by Marshall Sashkin at George Washington University in Washington found that women executives often reverted back to a more inclusive, nurturing style when they became owners of their own companies.

It's a trend many women in business look forward to with hope. Although only two of the Fortune 500 companies are run by women, there are signs of progress. In 1995, only 25 companies had women filling one-quarter of the corporate officer positions, according to the New York-based research organization Catalyst. By last year, the number had doubled.

Craig Savoye contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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