Thoughts on Female Leadership

Inspired by an excellent HBR article by Thomas Chamarro-Premuzic (7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women) [1], let me pick out 3 observations that illustrate the gender gap problem at work, and suggest a path forward:

Articles on gender diversity generally start with data proving how big the gap between women and men is in corporate settings. The pattern is familiar: the latest research shows devastating numbers, with a few sharp statements we blame the majority for “still not seeing it” and we mumble a few words about “a lot still to be done”. Let me skip that phase, and share my drive to write about this topic. Personally, the good cause of gender equality for the sake of it, and restoring something that historically and systemically is wrong in society, is not directly what makes me tick. But the enormous pool of untapped potential that we create by non-inclusive work cultures hurts me. I see too many super talented individuals not getting a chance to contribute because “a lot is still to be done”.

  1. Orchestrate Talking Time

In male-dominated groups at work, talking time is unequally divided. Studies have shown that it takes an overwhelming majority of women to claim a proportionate amount of time in discussions. Women are more frequently interrupted, and interruptions tend to be overly critical and negative. The consequence: a perception forms in the mind of predominantly male decision-makers that women are less competent and have less authority. In most organisations men will not state this openly: they know the offence that many take when something is said by white male that goes against the DEI-norm. But perception is ruthless.

Studies by Karpowitz and Mendelberg of Cambridge University [2] show what is needed to reverse the talking time balance. Their experiments – in which groups were asked to split collective earnings – ran in two groups: groups that had to make decisions by majority rule, and groups in which unanimous decision-making was required. The majority-rule groups displayed the above described pattern: unequal talking time, and frequent – and negative – interruptions. However, when unanimous decision-making was enforced, talking time for women increased, there were more positive affirmations and interruptions, and women were assigned more authority in the heads of others. 

The lesson: when women do not have the numbers – like in most corporate environments, leadership team meetings and Board Rooms – men need to ensure that they move the group to principles of unanimous decision making [3]. Leave the comfort zone in which the paradigm “If you want to be heard, speak up!” rules. Embrace the discomfort of going after the minority voices. We need their voices, and not because they are a minority.

2. Do not mix up displayed confidence and inner confidence

When women are less vocal, this is often attributed to a lack of confidence. And wrongly so. When we describe people as ‘confident’, this is often because we detect assertiveness, extroversion, charisma (also referred to as ‘magic’) and vocal presence (especially when it comes to sharing opinions). But deep down, these are not signals of confidence. There are many leaders with huge impact and followership, who are quiet and humble, think before they speak and who compensate a lack of charisma with a high dose of competence and skill. They do not display the stereotypical, outward-directed confidence, but inside they confidently rely on their rich experience and competence. 

Confidence is overrated. Studies have shown empirically that individuals with high levels of overconfidence are perceived as more competent by their peers. Also, it is known that both men and women tend to be overconfident about their own capabilities: 93% of American drivers rate themselves to be better than the average. This overconfidence bias is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the studies of Dunning and Kruger (“Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” [4]) deal with the causes and consequences of our tendency to overestimate our competence. 

While both men and women are overconfident, men are more frequently prone to this bias than women. And in a world where promotion decisions are made by men, and where outward confidence mistakenly is seen as a sign of inner competence, less women will make it through male ballotage to enter the leadership ranks. Given these findings, should we ask women to act more ‘male’ and display more outer competence? Or should men accept a more humble and less dominant stance, more investigating competence and potential rather than take quick promotion decisions based on gut-feeling and invisible bias? Shorter formulated: is our problem that we have too little competent women, of that we have too many incompetent men at the top [5]? Asking the question is to answer it. 

3. Ally or equal?

I once read: “If a flower doesn’t bloom, you don’t fix the flower, but you focus on the environment in which the flower is supposed to grow.” And I apologise to the original author for not giving proper reference for such a sharp quote in the context of diversity: I lost the reference. But the observation strikes a chord. When we think we can fight gender inequality with Chief Diversity Officers, women’s days, women’s networks, women’s mentoring and what other alternatives have you, we’re often keeping the problem firmly in place. The right solution to the wrong problem.  

The gap we’re talking about is huge and seen by all: women do not get the same chances as men, in an environment where all men say they should. That systemic problem can only be addressed by going into the small machinery of organisations: the daily interactions that people have. Bias plays up and people get excluded in the daily conversations people are engaged in. This is also the place where bias can be corrected and brilliant outliers get included: in our daily conversations. The conversations in which men and women are both present. Once observed, addressing unequal treatment is uncomfortable. In my view though, we’re creating more inclusive organisations only when we embrace that discomfort. By having the sharp and unpleasant conversations about what is not right, we slowly create what is right. An environment where we do not take offence and blame, but where we together address the things we want to change in the organisation. 

Without men joining that dialogue, the parties at both sides of the valley will talk about how the other side is wrong, but a bridge will never emerge. It’s in our daily conversations that false beliefs should be de-bunked: women do not care more about family than men, men are not better negotiators because they are more tough, women are not less self-confident than men (only during adolescence this is proven, the differences are gone with the age of about 23), and women are not less willing to take risks. A different biology does not mean less capability to lead an organisation. On the contrary.

When we enforce equal talking-time, take inner competence rather than outward confidence as an indicator for leadership potential, and when we treat eachother as equals in our daily interaction, we gradually introduce and mature an inclusive work climate. Yes, there still is “a lot to be done”, but it can be done.


[1] 7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop, HBR April 2020 (

[2] T. Mendelberg et al., Gender Inequality in Deliberation: Unpacking the Black Box of Interaction, Cambridge University Press (

[3] B.K. Rogers et al., When Women Speak, YMagazine (

[4] J. Kruger et al., Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6), 1121-1134, 2000

[5] T. Chamorro-Premuzic, Why Do So Many incompetent Men Become Leaders (and how to fix it), Harvard Business Review Press, 2019

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