When it comes to tackling pressing issues, there’s real value in diversity. Consider any big crisis: When one hits, leadership that employs a range of perspectives often proves beneficial for effectively collaborating, creating, and executing strategies necessary to arrive at practical solutions.
In research published in Business & Society, McIntire Professor Abbie Oliver and her two co-authors argue that women in leadership positions may provide an advantage when addressing grand challenges—ambitious but achievable problems that require innovative solutions.
Their work adds to research about the factors that impact stakeholder perceptions of leaders during seminal crises. “Grand Challenges and Female Leaders: An Exploration of Relational Leadership During the COVID-19 Pandemic” examines how preconceived notions of gender impact the evaluation of leader effectiveness during significant and difficult situations, while considering the many intricacies of leadership.
“Today’s leaders confront complex challenges and societal issues that their predecessors did not encounter, such as the mental health crisis in the workplace or the impact of climate change on organizational plans,” Oliver says, explaining that the pandemic exposed the critical nature of the relationship between leaders and problem-solving.
Along with Michael D. Pfarrer of the University of Georgia and François Neville of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, Oliver was intrigued in the early days of the pandemic that there seemed to be a rush of news articles and anecdotal evidence claiming a preference among stakeholders for female leadership and decided to further pursue the reasons behind it.
“We sought to understand why this might be the case and discovered that individuals prefer a relational leader when dealing with large issues that necessitate cooperation and coordination,” she says, adding that attributes of relational leaders—collaborating, communicating, and trusting colleagues—satisfy stereotypical ideas about women. “When people think of females, they frequently associate them with traditional roles of caretaking and homemaking and associated adjectives such as nurturing, caring, and loving. Consequently, individuals associate female leaders with their desired relational leader when considering who would be the most effective leader during COVID-19.”
While Oliver and her co-authors’ work identifies a stakeholder preference for women leaders when facing grand challenges, one of their next steps is to conduct further research seeking to understand if female leaders do indeed leverage this perception of effectiveness into action when contending with these momentous situations. And if they do excel, why?
But there’s also more on the subject that needs exploring. Oliver says that additional work will be required to examine how her team’s discoveries translate across different cultural and societal groups in order to better support and promote women into executive positions.
“Our argument for the preference of female leadership in addressing grand challenges is not meant to suggest that men cannot be effective leaders in these contexts,” she insists. “Rather, our goal is to highlight the value of diversity in leadership and the potential benefits of having a diverse array of perspectives and experiences in leadership roles.”
Read Oliver’s research here.