When it comes to leadership, does gender matter? Is there a difference between women leaders and men who lead? If so, what are the unique qualities of female leadership that the most effective women leaders possess, and are they unique to women?

In 2005, a year-long study conducted by Caliper, a Princeton, New Jersey-based management consulting firm, and Aurora, a London-based organization that advances women, identified a number of characteristics that distinguish women leaders from men when it comes to qualities of leadership:

Women leaders are more assertive and persuasive, have a stronger need to get things done and are more willing to take risks than male leaders….Women leaders were also found to be more empathetic and flexible, as well as stronger in interpersonal skills than their male counterparts….enabling them to read situations accurately and take information in from all sides….These women leaders are able to bring others around to their point of view….because they genuinely understand and care about where others are coming from….so that the people they are leading feel more understood, supported and valued. (Linda Lowen, 2012).

The Caliper study findings are summarized into four specific statements about women’s leadership qualities:

1. Women leaders are more persuasive than their male counterparts.

2. When feeling the sting of rejection, women leaders learn from adversity and carry on with an “I’ll show you” attitude.

3. Women leaders demonstrate an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem solving and decision making.

4. Women leaders are more likely to ignore rules and take risks.

In her book Why the Best Man for the Job is a Woman: The Unique Female Qualities of Leadership, author Esther Wachs Book examines the careers of fourteen top female executives – among them Meg Whitman, President and CEO of eBay – to learn what makes them so successful. What she discovers echoes the Caliper study, including a willingness to reinvent the rules; an ability to sell their visions; the determination to turn challenges into opportunities; and a focus on ‘high touch’ in a high tech business world.

According to “Business Core Studies” companies with the highest representation of women in their top management teams experienced better financial performance than companies with the lowest women’s representation. The Centre for Women Business Research has found that women today own 40% of the private businesses in the United States and a study release in 2010 found that high-tech start-ups led by women fail less frequently than those led by men. (Sherman Updegraff, Oct. 2011).

From the Commission for Gender Equality’s perspective there is a clear need for the National Policy Framework on Gender Equality to be legislated to impose responsibilities on the private and public sector with regard to promoting gender equality and establish accountability in this regard. Men are still holding 63% of top management positions in South Africa. Women are still over-represented in lower tiers of informal employment.

South Africa has shown dramatic increase in women entering the labour market since the middle 1990, and especially after the abolishment of Apartheid. The concept of female leadership is often referred to as possessing a “soft-power”. Characteristics generally attributed to women in leadership include the ability to respond positively and with empathy, a willingness to speak out, honesty, the ability to get support, a strong belief in the power of groups and collectives, and the ability to stay in power.

The SABPP Women’s Report: 2011, (Dr. Anita Bosch, 2011) indicates women in leadership positions in leadership positions in South Africa as follow:

ITEM                                                                           2011

Chief Executive Officer/ Managing Director         4,4%

Chairperson of a Board                                          5,3%

Directors                                                                  15,8%

Executive Managers                                               21,6%


Total sample size as received from JSE, N = 339 Companies’ managerial positions.

The table indicates that 4, 4% of the women in the Workforce population in South Africa currently fulfill the role of Chief Executive Officer or Managing Director, while only 5,3% hold the position of Chairperson of a Board. Of the total number of Women in leadership, more populate lower management roles. The percentage of Women Directors (15, 8%) and Executive Managers (21, 6%) are visibly higher. Over the last decade there has been a slow but steady increase in female representation in leadership positions in South Africa.

In South Africa the percentage of active females in careers has risen from 6% in 1961 to 94% in 2010 (Saffron Baggallay, 2011). Women now have more choice, independence and influence, both economically and politically.

Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, the World YWCA Secretary General, says attitudes toward leadership are changing, and what women offer is essential: Domination as a leadership style is becoming less and less popular. There is a new growing appreciation of…those traits that women use to keep families together and to organize volunteers to unite and make change in the shared life of communities. These newly admired leadership qualities of shared leadership; nurturance and doing well for others are today not only sought after but also indeed needed to make a difference in the world….A feminine way of leading includes helping the world to understand and be principled about values that really matter.

Recommendations to enhance Women Leadership in the Workplace:

The SABPP Women’s Report 2011 (Jean Grundling and Anita Bosch) made the following recommendations to enhance Women Leadership in the Workplace:


  • Organisations should provide women with opportunities to develop and build the relevant technical/functional knowledge and skills. Women in possession of solid functional skills have an increased chance of being considered valuable employees, whereas token female appointments perpetuate the negative stereotypes about women in the workplace.
  • HR practitioners should investigate which assumptions and practices underpin leadership training and development. It is inappropriate to aim to develop women’s leadership skills in the mould of masculine traits and leadership behaviours. Instead, leadership development programmes should enable women to give expression to their own style of leadership.
  • Women should not be solely responsible for gender equality in the workplace as it reinforces the notion that gender is a women’s issue when, in fact, it is a social issue to be addressed collectively by both genders.
  • The increased uptake of employment in the informal sector suggests that women are keen entrepreneurs. Conversion of women from the informal to the formal sector and from employee to employer should be a key focus of social responsibility programmes of South African organisations.
  • The changes in the world of work necessitate a review of organisational policies and procedures by HR practitioners. Amendments to policies should accommodate the needs and requirements of both men and women in the workplace today
  • There is a need to design, develop, and facilitate practical opportunities and interventions for women with potential to move into management and leadership positions. Such interventions should be supported by the sponsorship of a senior male executive.
  • A supportive environment should be created that is conducive to women in management and leadership positions acting as role models for junior female colleagues.
  • A change is required in the perceptions and stereotypes about women, especially about females in leadership positions. This can be accomplished by sharing, amongst others, relevant information and research findings with stakeholders the decision making powers.
  • An organisation’s Salary Structure should be scrutinised for hidden indications of pay disparity. The assumptions that drive pay progression should also be identified, and this information should be communicated to executive teams. Salary should be expressed as an exchange for output and labour, not face time. A strategy should then be formulated to address gender bias in remuneration.
  • Male managers and leaders in organisations should be guided and supported to understand the importance of valuing diversity and, especially, the value that women bring to a team, department, and the organisation as a whole.
  • Men and women should be encouraged to influence workplace practices in such a way those organisations recognise and accommodate the needs and requirements of women without sacrificing fairness. The message here is that difference should not be confused with inequality
  • There should be support for programmes where women can act as role models and mentors. Positive role models provide an example to the younger generation, which results in the transfer of knowledge, skills, and appropriate behaviours. Mentorship could strengthen the female talent pool to ensure that candidates are ready to fill management and leadership positions at all levels in the organisation.



The South African government has created an enabling environment for promoting female

development, both in the workplace and in communities. However, women also have to take

ownership of the process and accept the challenge to develop and promote themselves.

Gender empowerment is at the cutting edge of the business agenda globally and companies

want to do business with other organizations that can show and demonstrate that this is a

priority in their organization.






1. Diversity in the Workplace: Female Executives on the Rise. Sherman Updegraff. October, 2011.

2. Qualities of Women Leaders: The unique leadership characteristics of Women. Linda Lowen. 2012.

3. South Africa to act on Workplace Gender Equity. Chris Bathembu. August 2010.

4. The Cost of Women in the Workplace. Saffron Baggallay. January, 2011.

5. The SABPP Women’s Report, 2011. Dr Anita Bosch et al.


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