Exploring Common and Underrated Leadership Traits in Women

Jessamy Amic

Posted: August 18, 2023

Table of Contents

As we celebrate and pay tribute to the brave pioneers of gender equality, we take a look at what’s still holding women back from full economic participation and highlight the unique qualities that make women excellent leaders.

Figures coming out of the WeForum 2023 Global Gender Gap Report are looking good for South African women – and the country. In the report, which analyses gender disparities between men and women across economic, educational, health, and political outcomes, South Africa ranked 20th out of 146 countries and has closed more than 70% of the overall gender gap. However, looking at the Economic Participation and Opportunity section, South Africa came in poorly at 81st, indicating that much work still needs to be done to get women on an equal footing to men in business and employment.

Why do women struggle to get to the top?

Recent reports by Bain & Company, PwC, and a study by the University of the Western Cape, show the most significant barriers women face when looking to reach the boardroom in South Africa.

These are:

  1. The impact of gender stereotypes/assumptions on the recruitment process.
  2. Concerns over the cost and impact of maternity leave.
  3. Historical legacy of patriarchal systems and gendered beliefs about women’s responsibilities.
  4. Difficulty balancing career and family responsibilities.
  5. Ineffective organisational Diversity & Inclusion policies.
  6. The intersectionality of diversity markers – race, sexuality, language, religion, etc. – that influence conscious and unconscious biases in the workplace.
  7. The lack of mentors and role models.
  8. Insufficient professional learning and development strategies.
  9. The prevalence of the “old boy network” that excludes women from connecting with influential organisational decision-makers.
  10. Ongoing social discrimination, harassment, and cultural stigmas in the workplace.

Research from DiverstyQ further reveals women often feel forced to balance respect with likability and deal with cultural expectations related to gender. Women are also less likely to be taken seriously as leaders or given “authoritative” roles and generally face lower expectations for their career advancement. A 2021 study by Yale found women are consistently judged as having “lower leadership potential” than their male counterparts (even though nothing could be further from the truth).

1. Women have higher Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is regarded as a true leadership differentiator – beyond IQ or “hard skill” levels – and has become a prerequisite for leadership at the executive level.

A Korn Ferry study of 55,000 professionals across 90 countries found that women are better at using the soft skills needed for effective leadership and superior business performance. Women scored higher than men on nearly all (11 out of 12) EI competencies, except for emotional self-control, where men and women scored equally.

They perform better at emotional self-awareness, positivity, coaching and mentoring, empathy, influence, inspirational leadership, conflict management, organisational awareness, adaptability, teamwork, and achievement orientation.

2. Women are entrepreneurial

Africa is considered the most entrepreneurial continent in the world and is home to the highest proportion of women entrepreneurs globally. According to the 2022 Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, South Africa is one of only 12 economies across the globe where women’s entrepreneurial activity rates have increased, despite the impact of the pandemic. Yet, less than a third of the companies listed on the government’s central supplier database are women-owned, something President Ramaphosa vowed to remedy during his Women’s Day 2023 address.

Qualities that make women successful entrepreneurs range from being better collaborators and relationship-builders to taking calculated risks, being better at finding niche opportunities, handling ambiguity and adversity better, acting with more integrity, and their willingness to learn.

3. Women are great at creating jobs

The South African Women Entrepreneurs Job Creators Survey shows 90% of female respondents regard job creation as an important consideration when starting their business. The research shows they’re not only creating more jobs and growing revenue but are doing so at a significantly higher rate than their male counterparts.

Their success is attributed to the social position most women hold, for example, in single-parent households where mothers and grandmothers are the sole breadwinners. They are motivated to turn adversity into success, and their nurturing nature drives them to include their communities and families in their business ventures.

More proof of SA women’s job-creating success comes from the Tholoana Enterprise Programme, where all participants get equal access to skills development, finance and mentorship. In the 2022 programme, there were equal numbers of men and women, yet of the eight graduation award winners, seven were women.

4. Women excel during crises

Women are instinctively driven to support their people, and this need to succeed on behalf of others makes them exceptionally resilient under challenging conditions. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, an HBR study found women in leadership positions consistently scored higher than their male counterparts in 13 leadership qualities. Once the pandemic was in full swing, they repeated the study and found the gap in which women were leading became even wider, adding to the theory that female leaders have unique strengths that are vital during a crisis.

In times of crisis, women outperform men in their ability to take initiative, communicate, inspire others and build relationships, which in turn leads to an enhanced ability to connect with others, motivate and strengthen teams. This is essential not only when dealing with employees, colleagues, and stakeholders but also in responding to customer needs and protecting a brand’s reputation.

However, women should beware of the “glass cliff”, where women are promoted to leadership roles in times of crisis or downturn and are effectively set up for failure. It’s not at all uncommon in South Africa – women have been appointed as CEOs in various organisations that were in trouble. For more on the glass cliff and how to protect yourself, read When Spotting the Glass Cliff Matters for Women: A Qualitative Study Focusing on Gender Inequalities in Corporate South Africa and this informative article from Investopedia.

Develop your leadership skills with MasterStart

Whether you’re starting your own business or are tapping at the glass ceiling, you do not have to go it alone. MasterStart’s Developing Women Leaders online short course teaches aspiring female leaders to build skills such as networking, communication and collaboration, how to connect more authentically with others as an inspiring presence, and manage relationships successfully across a broad spectrum.

As a follow-on course, we recommend our hugely popular Diversity and Inclusion programme, where participants gain the insight and tools needed to examine their biases, stereotypes and habits and learn how to harness the dynamic strengths of each individual in the workplace.

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