Research shows that women have what it takes to make great CEOs

4 min read
Deborah Sweeney

Women lead only 24 of the large-cap companies that comprise Standard & Poor’s 500 Index — despite a multitude of research that shows that women have what it takes to make great CEOs. From qualities like reliability and humility to outcomes-oriented behaviors such as increasing sales (by 14 percent, according to one study), females are shown to excel in leadership positions.

As a CEO myself, this is no surprise to me. What’s surprising is that more companies don’t appreciate the value that female business leaders can bring to their enterprises. Here are seven reasons why women, in general, can make great CEOs:

1. They’re reliable.

A Zenger Folkman study of international business leaders found that women are more likely to follow through on commitments, honor commitments and keep promises. The same study found female leaders more likely to “display high integrity and honesty” — key traits of leaders who people are proud to follow.

2. They know how to foster relationships.

The Zenger Folkman study also found that female leaders were more frequently rated as building relationships and promoting collaboration and teamwork.

A great CEO doesn’t just provide vision and oversight; she builds a community within her company.

Great CEOs Collaborate

And numerous studies show that positive interpersonal relationships equate to a more productive workplace.

3. They’re humble.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business noted in a recent study that women tend to display more humility than their male counterparts in the business world. And, while that particular study pinpointed humility as a potential roadblock to startup success, great CEOs embrace this characteristic.

In Good to Great, author Jim Collins argues that a “powerful mixture of personal humility plus professional will” helps to define top (“Level 5”) leaders. As he explains on his website:

“Every good-to-great transition in that research began with the emergence of a Level 5 leader who deflected attention from himself, maintained a low profile, and led with inspired standards rather than inspiring personality.”

Collins’ research demonstrates that companies led by Level 5 CEOs tend to produce better results than businesses with attention-seeking leaders at the helm.

4. They’re emotionally intelligent.

Crucial to leadership is the ability to read and respond effectively to peers and subordinates — and women tend to outperform men on tests of emotional intelligence. In fact, a recent study of 55,000 professionals in 90 countries found that women in business score higher than their male counterparts on 11 out of 12 key areas of social and emotional intelligence.

5. They’re excellent multitaskers.

Being a CEO means constantly multitasking — it’s just part of the job description and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it any differently. And in general, women do well at juggling multiple tasks. One study found that men require more brainpower than women do to switch between tasks. According to researcher Svetlana Kuptsova:

"Our findings suggest that women might find it easier than men to switch attention and their brains do not need to mobilize extra resources in doing so, as opposed to male brains.”

In another study, women outperformed men in a series of computer-based exercises that involved switching tasks.

6. They’re careful.

The authors of the Zenger Folkman study asked the female leaders they surveyed why they thought they had been, collectively, rated higher than their male peers on many leadership qualities. One response: “We feel the constant pressure to never make a mistake, and to continually prove our value to the organization.” And that pressure translates to careful consideration of actions and decisions.

Do you have what it takes?

Of course, not all women display these and other characteristics of great CEOs (and many men do), but there’s no denying that research suggests, at large, that women often possess the necessary qualities to be great business leaders.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the first American female Fortune 500 CEO, Katherine Graham: “To love what you do and feel like it matters, how could anything be more fun?”