Can women managers reduce your business risk?

LONDON Tue Apr 28, 2009 11:08am EDT

A woman is reflected in a rain puddle along with the Ferry Building following a steady rain in San Francisco, California March 2, 2009. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

A woman is reflected in a rain puddle along with the Ferry Building following a steady rain in San Francisco, California March 2, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Robert Galbraith

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LONDON (Reuters) - Would the world economy have got into such a mess if more women had been in charge? It's a difficult question to answer.

The economic crisis, though, could put a spotlight on what women offer as leaders who could help repair the damage.

"We'd love to think it would make a difference," said Ruth Sealy, deputy director of the International Center for Women Leaders at Cranfield University.

Sealy said the crisis is bringing to light academic research, which includes studies showing that mixed management teams make better decisions and are more innovative.

Goal-driven (mostly male) management teams in the financial services industry have been blamed for a culture of excessive risk-taking that has crippled the global banking system.

"Would greater gender balance in decision-making have produced a different outcome? Probably," said Alice Eagly, Professor and Chair of Pyschology at Northwestern University.

"Psychological research suggests that women are somewhat less willing than men to take extreme risks."

In management-speak, men's leadership style is known as "transactional" which is basically carrot and stick.

This approach is considered old-fashioned in some academic circles and deemed ill-suited to cutting-edge companies, where management structures are flatter and less hierarchical.

Women's management style is characterized as more relationship-based that aims to encourage and empower.

Putting the two together provides a more balanced mix.

Research from London Business School supports the fact that an equal male/female split in a management team is best for promoting innovation in teams, said Elisabeth Kelan, who helped set up the Center for Women in Business at the School.

Women executives say having to handle a family as well as a career gives them skills which can be useful in management.

"The differences between female and male leaders from my perspective are that women leaders usually have more emotional intelligence, teamwork and interpersonal skills," said Dora Liu, a partner in financial services at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, based in Shanghai.

"Usually they have a more balanced work/life style which is why women tend to have more emphasis on "We" versus "Me.""

But it's hard to change attitudes and overcome stereotypes.

"It's still 'Think manager, think male,'" said Sealy.

Men are often seen as being good at taking charge, strong at delegating and problem solving.

"Because these latter qualities are more closely associated with effective leadership, the perception can be that women leaders just don't measure up to men," said Josefine van Zanten, global head of diversity and inclusion at oil company Shell, which has programs to attract, develop and promote women.

"There is much more to be done to ensure that corporations, which were designed by Western, white men for Western white men, offer more flexibility to ensure everyone is able to contribute to their highest potential."

Big international companies already make efforts to try to promote diversity in terms of race and gender.

But the economic crisis has put traditional leadership qualities under greater scrutiny.

"I think there is room, now that the old management style is in question, for new ways of managing," said Kelan, who is also a lecturer in work and organizations at King's College London.

"Regardless of women bringing certain specific skills to leadership, other styles of leading will become more accepted which is a good thing for women."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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