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The future of leadership is a woman’s business

Tiziana Casciaro is associate professor of organizational behaviour and HR management, and academic director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

It's been a frustratingly slow journey for women in business leadership. Despite the advancement – even dominance – of women in an increasing variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees, and in the work force (including managerial occupations), women continue to be severely underrepresented in business leadership positions. The higher the leadership level, the fewer the women, whether it's in corporations, professional services firms or entrepreneurial ventures.

Much has been said and researched about the structural and cultural constraints that make it difficult for women to break through at the top of the managerial ladder, but two recent developments in management research bode well for the future of women in business leadership.

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The first development is a movement away from a "heroic" view of leadership, in which an exceptional individual sets a vision for the group or organization, communicates this vision and motivates followers to execute it. An alternative view is emerging in which leadership is really about creating a context in which others are both willing and able to do the hard work required to innovate in the face of ever-changing business challenges.

The job of business leaders in these complex and unstable environments is to create the conditions for others to come up with new ideas, to push forward creative ways to think about business problems and to help lead others in collective endeavours. As Harvard's Linda Hill puts it in her new book Collective Genius, these leaders of innovation say their job "is to set the stage, not to perform on it."

The second development is a challenge of traditional leadership research, according to which people tend to attribute charisma to male leaders more readily than to female leaders. Charisma, an important contributor to leadership outcomes, is in the eye of the beholder – an attribute perceived by followers.

In a paper forthcoming in the July-August issues of the journal Organization Science, Raina Brands, Jochen Menges and Martin Kilduff present evidence challenging the seemingly inevitable charismatic bias favouring male leaders. In three studies, these researchers show that attributions of charismatic leadership depend on the match between the gender of the leader and how work interactions among followers are perceived to be structured.

In groups where work advice interactions are perceived as revolving around the leader, people see male leaders as more charismatic than female leaders. By contrast, in groups where work advice is perceived as flowing more evenly among team members, with the leader and followers linked in an inclusive flow of communication, female leaders are seen as more charismatic. Perceptions of charisma, therefore, depend not just on whether the leader is a man or a woman but also on how the leader is seen approaching his or her role. People appear to have an easier time associating more inclusive forms of leadership with women, and more centralized forms of leadership with men.

When taken together, these two developments paint a new, exciting picture for the future of women in business leadership. As the increasing speed and complexity of business moves the dial from individual leadership to collective genius, societal gender schemas lead people to perceive women as better suited than men to leadership challenges that require inclusiveness, broad engagement and collective learning. If these trends continue as this new evidence suggests, the future of leadership may indeed be a woman's business.

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