09/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who's The Boss? Why More Women Are Not in the Corner Office

Are women better managers than men? The embers of this tired gender debate are blazing with new and fiery fodder, fueled by recent propositions in the media. The New York Times' "No Doubts: Women Are Better Managers" (July 26, 2009) and "Room for Debate: Do Women Make Better Bosses?" are just two examples that have elicited hundreds of responses, the majority of which tend to run something like this: "The worst manager I ever had was a woman."

Is all this criticism fair? No. Women are very good managers. While no one can state unequivocally that men or women are better managers, many studies have shown that women do have superior management skills. For example, one study of 900 managers at several multinational corporations indicated that women outperform men in 28 of 31 basic management skills and behaviors. Using the 360-degree feedback methodology, researchers compared various scores given by peers, bosses and subordinates to male and female managers.

Despite the fact that 70 percent of the raters were men, women scored significantly higher on critical management skills such as problem solving, decision making, planning, controlling, managing relationships, leading and communicating. Men and women were rated equally on delegation of authority. Interestingly, women scored lower than men on their ability to handle pressure and cope with frustration. But it's no secret that women often discuss their problems more openly, a tendency that can lead men to think that women just can't handle the stress.

But how are women as leaders? A group of researchers (Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt and van Engen) looked at 45 studies on the various leadership styles of men and women. They found that women leaders used more transformational styles coupled with contingent rewards common in transactional leadership. That is, women tended to support and encourage their subordinates to accomplish difficult tasks and solve problems creatively, while simultaneously coaching and mentoring them in their individual needs. Compare that to male leaders who used a more transactional style, which includes both active and passive management-by-exception, and a laissez-faire leadership style (paying attention to subordinates' mistakes and failures, and/or waiting until the problem becomes too big to ignore).

In today's complex and highly competitive business environment, where companies have multiple customers in multiple markets all demanding custom-designed solutions to their issues, the organizations that are able to execute multiple initiatives quickly and flexibly have an edge over competitors. Companies are finding that they must move from vertical and hierarchical forms to horizontal and networked models that are more flexible, adaptive and necessary in today's world. This is where a more transformational style of leadership with a high degree of collaboration, cooperation and communication is necessary. Women -- and yes, many men -- are great at these skills.

No Girls Allowed

So if women have the skills necessary to be effective and top quality managers, why aren't more of them occupying the corner office? The unfortunate truth is that women don't often get the chance. Subtle and pervasive bias against women as managers makes it difficult, if not nearly impossible, for women to both excel as a leader and be admired for the competencies she brings to the job.

Women have always been perceived as less-than-ideal candidates for management and that bias has not changed over the years. Women who occupy roles that have traditionally been held by men face extraordinary scrutiny over their expertise and handling of that role. A Swedish study showed that women have to be two-and-a-half times more competent than men in order to be judged equally. Successful leaders are often associated with masculine traits like rational logic, authority, independence, toughness and aggressiveness. But when a woman is in a leadership role, she is held to a different standard than men, and outward displays of toughness, authority and independence are seen as incongruent with expectations of more feminine traits.

Need more recent proof? At the annual conference of the Academy of Management in Chicago earlier this month, scholars presented several new studies that indicated the following:

1. In cases where managers (male and female) behave unfairly toward others, women are judged more harshly than men and they are penalized more severely.

2. Women managers tend to use "transformational leadership" styles (motivating subordinates through respect and pride in the organization's mission, and using intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration) more often than men. But when men use that leadership style, they are perceived as more competent and subsequently get higher performance ratings than women.

3. The concept of "manager" still equals "male" especially if you are a man doing the perceiving.

4. Women and minorities who make it to the upper ranks of management are usually "tokens" or numerical minorities vis-à-vis the prevailing group at the top. As tokens, they are often part of a lower status group in the organization. Contrary to what might be expected, the token members favor the dominant and high status group in their preferences for working with other people, while shunning members of their own token group. This suggests that high-level women managers do not actively promote or encourage other women fearing competition from them.

5. Women tend to avoid negotiations about compensation, while men tend to avoid negotiation over family issues. Perhaps it's another reason why women earn about 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

I'm a realist: gender bias will never cease to exist, but it's time to give women a fair and equal opportunity to be the really great managers they have already proven to be.