What does a female leader look like?

Picture of a female leader looking at the skyline
By Alex Burden, Professional Development Editor

14 October 2016

Can you describe a typical female leader? What are they like? Do they have a particular appearance? How similar are they to the male leaders you know? 

In an article for the Huffington Post , Marcia Reynolds, leadership trainer and behavioural scientist, asked the question, ‘what does a female leader look like?’.

She has written extensively on the concept of female leadership, and her book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, won the 2011 Axiom Business Books Awards (Women in Business category).

“I believe that what is being defined as a “good leader” is evolving to integrate a balance of traditional masculine and feminine traits,” she said. There have been numerous debates around female leadership, and they tend to circle back to capacity, the drive, social circles, and varying styles between the sexes.

“[Women] read more articles about what is wrong with female leaders than what is right. They know they should bring forward their talents for collaboration, consensus building, and inclusion,” she said. “Yet they are still getting blasted when tears seep through their mask of control and they inadvertently fumble when attempting to play the political game.”

Dr Christine McDougall, founder of 2:23am and Big Blue Sky, writes extensively on the concept of female leadership. In a comment about The Athena Doctrine - a study of 64,000 people (including Fortune 500 boardrooms) that revealed over 60% believe the world would improve if men thought like women - she highlights that ‘feminine’ attributes are driving forward new values for a progressive world.

“Our traditional work place values competitiveness, independence and self reliance. The go hard rulers of the world, the solo heroic journey. These values are characteristic masculine traits.

“But our workplaces are changing. And they need to. While we don’t want to throw out the masculine values, we are learning that on their own they are limited…

“We are moving into a culture that has more collaboration, sharing, nurturing and care. Yes, these are the feminine attributes, but don’t let that scare you. Think of the rise of the internet, one of the greatest sharing tools made by man. Of companies like Airbnb, Zipcar, Crowdfunding platforms.

“The opportunities are for business to embrace these new values and find ways to incorporate them deep into the culture. A few more women at the leadership and board level will help. Not because you need to fill a quota, but because in so doing you will ensure the long-term success and viability of your business. It’s simply good business.”

Men are not faced with the suspicion that they can’t be good leaders simply because they are men. Susan R Madsen

What is becoming more and more obvious as the business world opens its doors to greater collaboration, is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. There is no one style for men, and there is certainly no one style for women.

If one was to undertake an analysis of current female leaders in positions of considerable power, such as Angela Merkel, or Sheryl Sandberg, there would be few similarities, other than gender.

Susan R Madsen of Utah Valley University studied female leadership qualities across cultures, specifically China and The United Arab Emirates, and discovered that the drive to succeed was implanted from an early age.

“Every single one of them talked about finding their voices and their confidence at dinner-table conversations with their families. Their parents talked about politics, about what was happening in the community, and when the women had something to say, their parents didn’t hush them,” Madsen said. 

The encouragement of a father-figure also played a considerable role in their development; it taught them that their input was valued and removed established male-female roles.

“Men are more strategic and [tend to follow] a more linear path to becoming a leader. Women’s paths are much more emergent. They tend to not necessarily look ahead and think, ‘I want to be on top.’ Women would point to a number of experiences—motherhood, or working with a non-profit, or sitting on a board, as shaping their path to becoming leaders,” she said.

“Men are not faced with the suspicion that they can’t be good leaders simply because they are men.”

Madsen’s research revealed that what leadership looks like in each country influences what leadership is for women. “For example, in the Middle East, the top leaders are kings or sheikhs, and there is a big separation between the leaders and society. Oftentimes, the women of those cultures just don’t see themselves in those positions, so their understanding of leadership is more male.”

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, niece of former President John F. Kennedy, wrote an opinion piece for the NY times on the absence of powerful female archetypes in American culture, suggesting that the absence of queens and the monarchy of Europe, for example, has left America without a strong female example.  

“I open my talk, 'Women: Taking Power Seriously', by having people close their eyes. 'Imagine someone in power', I say. Invariably, most say they envision a man despite being at a talk about women. It’s not hard to understand why. Sadly, America stands out among nations for its absence of a woman as president,” she said.  

Malcolm Gladwell researched the ‘typical CEO’ for his 2005 book, Blink, and found startling evidence that reflected the human proclivity for picking people who looked and sounded ‘right’ in positions of power: 30% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are 6ft 2 or taller (3.9% of the American population is this height).

The business schools of the University of California, San Diego and Duke University listened to 792 male CEOs give presentations to investors, and discovered that those with the deepest voices earned £187,000 a year more than average.

Further research has shown that time and time again, that overweight people, especially women, are judged as being unable to control themselves, and therefore not an efficient leader. The same goes for high-pitched voices or a rising inflection – this suggests youth and inexperience to our primal senses.

We need to be sensitive to our innate urges to select the ‘silverback’ of our offices, based on forgotten instincts to anoint the fittest and the strongest as our leaders.

With the research piling up into a stereotype mountain topped with red flags, it appears it is time for us all to dispense of pre-conceived ideas and refrain from selecting on who ‘seems’ better for the job, and instead focus on who has the skills for the role.

Female leadership in 2017

We’re looking to run a programme throughout the UK for all female CAs on becoming a leader, or developing existing skills – if you’d like to take part please let us know your preferred city by emailing us at pd@icas.com

What do you think? Tell us in the comments below.


  • Leadership and management

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