March 16, 2018

The Best Man for the Job is a Woman | Leading From the Library

steven-bell-newswireA flurry of studies, reports, and articles are pointing to new findings about gender and leadership. Men and woman bring different strengths to the practice of leadership. Let’s avoid arguing about who’s better, and focus instead on how the sexes can learn from each other and improve as leaders.

As the government shutdown dragged on into a second week with little action taken to restore government services or raise the debt ceiling, there was a significant shift that enabled just enough progress in the Senate to spur negotiations between the two parties to offer optimism for a solution. What happened?

Despite their extreme minority status in the Senate, it was several female senators, Republican and Democrat, who stepped forward with a negotiating framework that became the core of a tentative deal to end the impasse. Of the bipartisan committee that worked on an agreement, 50 percent of the members were women, even though women represent only 20 percent of all senators. While Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) joked that “The women are taking over,”Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) said, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were so heavily involved in trying to end this stalemate. Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.”

What factors enabled the female senators to collaborate and succeed where their male colleagues had failed? That’s a question gaining the interest of leadership experts, who increasingly believe that women make better leaders than men. From government to corporate America to Silicon Valley and even in higher education, women are not only gaining leadership roles, but delivering results where men have failed.

Be More like Men or Women?

If you want a debate about leadership to break out, just raise the age-old question of whether true leaders are born or made. Everyone seems to have an opinion on that one. Judging by the amount of attention it’s received, the new controversial debate in leadership pertains to gender. Do women have a certain soft skill set that makes them better leaders than men? Can men, who are lacking in these skills, learn them? Leaders are encouraged to adopt skills, such as empathy, that are typically associated with women. Yet while men are advised to think and act more like women, leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo are giving advice or taking actions that suggest the exact opposite; that women leaders should behave more like men. In learning to be a better leader, what exactly should you do when it comes to adopting certain gender-associated traits and behaviors? Perhaps, like other leadership skills, it’s more a matter of achieving balance.

Who’s More Effective?

Empathy. Vulnerability. Humility. Inclusiveness. Generosity. Balance. Patience. Those traits are among the one that women are commonly thought to possess, while men are lacking in them. It’s not just a matter of having them or not; a new study by Hay Group indicates that women use these qualities more effectively. Women, for example, are more than twice as likely as men are to demonstrate good skills in conflict resolution. The Senate example appears to back that up. Women leaders are also more self-aware and able to influence others. The work of Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn, who discusses the qualities of remarkable leaders, points to the greater importance of behavior over either education or experience in determining what makes leaders remarkable. Of those behaviors, empathy is perhaps the most important of all. The Hay Group study found that women exhibit empathy as a strength at twice the rate of men. While the glass ceiling still serves as a barrier to the C-suite for women, Hay suggests that, as more organizations transition from hierarchical to matrix structures where teamwork is prized, women will excel, owing to their behavior competencies. This may lead to new leadership opportunities, although Hay believes that for this to happen, organizations will first need to better recognize and value the importance of interpersonal skills.

Not Quite Venus or Mars

One area in which both sexes were found lacking in the Hay study was self-awareness. Ruth Malloy, global managing director for leadership and talent at Hay Group, said that leaders “are often not mindful about our impact on others or how and where we spend our time. We can easily get caught up in the task or the day-to-day distractions and pay less attention to ourselves and [what] effect we may have on others.”

Self-awareness is key to identifying one’s areas of weakness, whether male or female, and then working to build strength in those areas, according to John Gerzema, author of new book The Athena Doctrine, which argues that traits classically considered feminine are essential to effective leadership today. In his surveys of over 60,000 adults, the qualities most desired in leaders were patience, expressiveness, intuition, flexibility, empathy, and many other traits identified by respondents as feminine. Yet 81 percent of those surveyed said leaders required a balance of male and female traits. Gerzema believes that, while masculine traits are still the ticket to top executive positions, a shift is occurring. He advises leaders to aim for somewhere in between Venus and Mars, and identifies multiple trends that point to workplace changes in which a more feminine leadership will emerge as the preferred style.

Learn From Each Other

“Who is the best man for the job?” is a phrase that will surely, over time, be eliminated from our leadership vocabulary. We are learning and confirming that to excel our leaders, of either gender, must acquire and thoughtfully integrate into their practice a range of both masculine and feminine behaviors—and do so in the right balance.

Does the current debate about whether men and women should be more like the opposite sex apply to the library world? It is a predominantly female profession, so one might think that the observation of feminine qualities among the profession’s leaders would be nothing new. Though the statistical over-representation of men in formal leadership positions, such as dean and directors, might suggest that even in our mostly female workforce, it is the male traits that enable individuals to acquire leadership roles. The real challenge, as I see it, is how leaders learn to morph their leadership styles with traits not typically associated with their gender. This may be where self-awareness, reflection, 360-degree reviews, and other techniques are of use in better understanding our own strengths and weaknesses as leaders. Both men and women can learn from each other as well, to develop the skills that individuals seek in their leaders. Each improvement we make, as we adapt these new skills to our leadership style, will help us to boost the quality of library leadership.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. Scataloger says:

    I find it interesting that the article makes no mention of genders other than male/female. Sure, we are looking optimally at a blend of male and female traits. But did these studies take into account those leaders who identify with neither the male nor the female gender?

  2. Hi Scataloger. That’s an interesting point. None of the literature that influenced my thinking for this column addressed genders other than male or female.What do you think? If a leader identifies as neither male or female, as a leader do you think they would do a better job by emphasizing one set of traits over another – or would you advocate for trying to achieve some balance or blend between the two. Thanks for your comment.

    • Scataloger says:

      I’m not sure. I’d like to see more data on leaders who don’t identify as male or female. My guess is that, since they would be a vast minority, that would be tough to put together. Just curious…