Examining Gender-Based Leader Stereotypes in the COVID-19 Context

Research shows male and female leaders are likely to handle the pandemic context in different ways.

2020 has taught us that large scale and requisite change can happen at any time. And with the speed of change increasing, organizations need to be prepared to adapt more frequently and at an expedited pace. This has put HR teams under rising pressure, increasing their workload, distracting them from strategy, and forcing them to make swift people mobility decisions often based on generality and without foundation.

Our comprehensive research highlights why generalizations, compared to the use of objective data, result in inhibited outcomes. To highlight this, we scrutinize whether gender has a pronounced effect on success when leading in a pandemic.

Over the last several months, there have been numerous articles on how female and male leaders are leading during COVID-19. For example, the article Why women leaders are excelling during the coronavirus pandemic links better leadership outcomes to Global Gender Gap Report 2020 and gender-balanced environments.

The general conclusion is that greater involvement of women results in a broader perspective on the crisis, and paves the way for the deployment of more complete solutions than if they had been imagined by a homogeneous group. If conclusions are based on stereotypes, opinions, or very small sample sizes, however, this doesn’t help us learn and develop leaders in the current situation and for the future.

SHL conducted a comprehensive three-year study of nearly 9,000 leaders at 85 global companies in different industries, concluding that leader attributes and developmental experiences that best predict performance depend on the context. We used this data to examine how men and women may address the challenges associated with the pandemic differently.

Examining Gender-Based Leader Stereotypes in the COVID-19 Context - Image 1 (Aspiring Minds)

In a previous blog, we identified six contextual challenges that are likely to be especially salient during the pandemic:

  • Lead Geographically Dispersed Teams
  • Deliver Under High Uncertainty and Ambiguity
  • Ensure Safety and Security of Persons or Operations
  • Design and Drive New Strategies
  • Deliver Rapidly Changing Products, Services, and Processes
  • Operate with High Resource Constraints

We computed separate scores for each challenge based on (a) the personality characteristics and (b) the developmental experiences that best predict performance within each challenge. We then compared male and female scores to determine whether men or women tend to be better prepared to handle different types of pandemic challenges. The following summarizes our results:

  • Women had significantly higher mean scores on the personality-based solution for five of the six challenges. There was no difference on Deliver Rapidly Changing Products, Services, and Processes. The significant differences were relatively small, except for Operate with High Resource Constraints, which had a moderately large difference favoring women.
  • Among the personality traits that best predicted performance across the relevant challenges, men tended to be more persuasive than women, but women were more likely to be caring, sympathetic, and considerate toward others; focus on getting things finished; understand people and why they behave in certain ways; involve others in decision making; and trust team members.
  • Men had significantly higher mean scores on the personality-based solution for five of the six challenges. There was no difference on Ensure Safety and Security of Persons or Operations. All differences were relatively small.
  • Our research has found that having relevant experience can often compensate for lacking the personal attributes that lead to success. Considering both personality and experience, we found no expected difference in performance for Lead Geographically Dispersed Teams, men tend to have a small advantage on Deliver Rapidly Changing Products, Services, and Processes, and women have a small advantage on the remaining challenges.

Examining Gender-Based Leader Stereotypes in the COVID-19 Context - Image 2 (Aspiring Minds)

Overall, the data suggest that female leaders tend to be slightly more aligned to this combination of contextual challenges relevant to a pandemic environment. What’s more important than any unproductive gender generalizations, however, is to use objective people data to spot areas of exposure when a sudden change in context occurs.

A data-driven contextual approach can quickly identify leaders that may suddenly have a sub-optimal personality fit with what the context requires and need to be supported with relevant experiences to compensate for the lack of fit.

Instead of using silo thinking and one-size-fits-all approaches to talent processes, talent management approaches between L&D, Talent Acquisition, Heads of Talent, and HRBPs need to be more connected using common challenge language.

This research has determined what is required for leaders to be successful, so energy and creativity can be used to design relevant and impactful development strategies that can have an immediate business impact in the given context. HR should be in a position to connect business challenges to development opportunities and offer support to leaders in obtaining relevant leadership experiences for people in the business.




Jeff Johnson

Dr. Jeff Johnson is a Principal Research Scientist at SHL. His current responsibilities on the Research and Development team focus on designing and developing innovative products and solutions that support employee selection and development, particularly with respect to the identification and placement of current and future leaders. His research demonstrating the impact of context on diversity and the prediction of leader performance led to the development of SHL’s Leader Edge selection and development tool and was awarded the M. Scott Myers Award for Applied Research in the Workplace by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 2018.

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