This Trait Makes Women Better Bosses Than Men, Especially In Creative Fields

by JR Thorpe
Mike Windle/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Despite the increasing visibility of women at the very top of the business world, from Sheryl Sandberg to Oprah, women continue to have to push hard to reach management and leadership roles in industries worldwide. While they're becoming more common, and we're a lot more comfortable with the idea of a female business leader than we were a few decades ago, pervasive institutional sexism and debilitating policies around childcare and maternity leave still keep qualified women away from top jobs. Despite these sexist attitudes towards leadership in business, there's new research to suggest that in "intuitive and spontaneous" women may actually make better bosses than men, especially in creative fields.

One of the most damaging things for women who want to be on top is society's idea of a boss in business: dominating, aggressive, confident — all characteristics that are typically assigned to men rather than women. And if women do exhibit them as bosses, they're punished. Studies have repeatedly shown that women in leadership positions are seen as "abrasive" and aggressive, rather than acceptably assertive, when doing exactly the same things as men, like raising their voice or interrupting. Women receive more pointedly negative feedback from male and female peers, and, as a vast collection of sociological science suggests, are penalized for exhibiting social behavior that's perceived as outside "feminine" norms — even though it's also seen as essential for being a good boss. It's a catch-22 for all women in positions of power, political and otherwise.

Beyond breaking down the "likeability" barrier, though, the business world in particular needs to redefine and expand what "being a boss" actually looks like, to incorporate shifting ideas about competence and good leadership. New evidence from the University of Vaasa in Finland shows that, for creative industries in particular, one kind of leader shows the most promise for leading an awesome company: intuitive, spontaneous women.

Why Intuitive, Spontaneous Women Make Great Creative Leaders

The new study comes from the doctoral thesis of Piia Uusi-Kakkuri, and it's made such a splash that it's been released into the scientific world before she's even defended it. According to Uusi-Kakkuri, creative industries look for "transformational" leaders. And women in particular can often fit the bill.

If you're not sure what a transformational leader is, you're not alone. It's a theory that popped up in the late 1970s and is meant to be an antidote to "transactional" leadership, which is all about maintaining the status quo and working on a give-and-take basis. It's common among CEOs of start-ups and industries that require a lot of faith, because transformational leadership is all about inspiring others, supporting creativity, mentoring, making big changes, and leading by example. People tend to talk about transformational leaders outside business (Gandhi is one often-cited example), but if you work in a creative business where innovation and new ideas are needed, like graphic design, the arts or advertising, you might recognize that there are often transformational leaders at the head of successful initiatives.

If this is all complete corporate-speak to you, Uusi-Kakkuri's conclusions might be more interesting. According to her thesis (which isn't publicly available yet, so an in-depth look at the data has to wait), the people who fit the "transformational" label and do the most good in creative companies tend to be women with particular character traits: intuition, extraversion, and spontaneity. They're no less assertive, but they incorporate character traits we don't typically assign to the Don Drapers of the world into their leadership style — and that, apparently, makes them extremely effective.

While extraversion fits in with our traditional view of a boss, intuition and spontaneity aren't especially. Many industries, Uusi-Kakkuri points out, go for managers whose strengths are logic, facts and competence, but those "engineering types" are less likely to welcome weird creative ideas, even if they consciously hire innovative ideas. And that, for a creative company, is a real problem.

We Need To Change What A "Boss" Looks Like

Uusi-Kakkuri's urge to shift the way we think about bosses in creative industries is part of a bigger push to redefine the ideal business leader, and it's got a lot of scientific support behind it. A study of 3000 managers released in March 2017 by the BI Norwegian Business School, for instance, found that female managers consistently outperform male ones on four of the five areas of strong leadership (communication, innovation, supportiveness, and goal-setting), while men are better at managing workplace stress. The overall picture, the scientists behind the study said, was that women make for better managers and bosses. That conclusion is supported by other science, too, including a Gallup study in 2014 that found that employees across America rated their female employers as "more engaged" than male bosses, regardless of the women's age or whether they have kids. (So much for the children-as-distraction argument.)

Unfortunately, the numbers (and the pay) aren't catching up to what science has shown time and again. The 100 top companies on the Financial Times Stock Exchange have 94 male top executives compared with 6 females, and a report released just yesterday found that those men earn, on average, 77 percent more than their female counterparts. And in 2014, it was revealed that the two top-paid male CEOS make more than the top 10 female CEOs in the world combined.

In case that disparity among some of the wealthiest people in the world doesn't bother you too much, some other statistics might give you more of a perspective. A 2017 survey of salaries by Marketing Week found that female marketing executives and bosses actually had some of the biggest pay gaps in the industry compared to their male counterparts, around 35 percent less. A study in March 2017 found that female managers across Ireland earn an average of 17 percent less than their male counterparts, while numbers released in the same month from Australia revealed that female managers there earn on average $75,000 less annually.

And that's if female managers even manage to get the roles in the first place: a 2017 study by the Financial Times of 50 finance companies worldwide found that women only occupied 25.5 percent of senior roles, even though they make up an average of 58 percent of the staff at lower levels.

There are a lot of things that need to change before gender parity is achieved in leadership roles in global business, from better support for mothers to more mentoring opportunities for women themselves, but scrapping the gendered idea of what a boss looks like would definitely be a good start.