How Communication Differences Impact Women in Leadership


Here’s a sobering statistic: fewer women hold significant leadership positions than men named John.

Women are often underutilized in organizations in which their natural leadership qualities could bring greater balance and success. This is not just an equality issue, it is undermining the stability and advancement of business and government.

Top gender and leadership scholar Dr. Alice Eagly shows in her studies that women are more likely than men to possess the leadership qualities associated with success. Eagly says that women are more transformational than men because they care more about developing their followers, they listen to them and stimulate them to think "outside the box," they are more inspirational, AND they are more ethical.

Dr. Bernard Bass, who developed the current theory of transformational leadership, predicts that in the future women leaders will dominate simply because they are better suited to 21st century leadership/management than are men.

Are Gender Communication Styles Nature, Nurture, or Both?

Nuanced communication skills are greatly undervalued as a critical component of organizational success.

The biggest mistake is believing there is one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation - or a relationship.
— Dr. Deborah Tannen

Conversations are the currency of how we get work done. Unfortunately gender distances are taught and reinforced from a very early age and carry over into the workforce.

Dr. Deborah Tannen — University Professor at Georgetown University and acclaimed author or editor of more than 16 books, including TALKING FROM 9 TO 5: Women and Men at Work — has been a pioneer in the field of linguistics since the 1980s. Her research has become foundational to understanding the differences between how people communicate based on their sex, culture, environmental factors, and more.

In the below video—circa 1980s yet incredibly relevant to this day—she demonstrates how children as young as preschool age are already establishing distances based on societal norms in which boys one-up each other inflating and over-exaggerating to fit in, while girls try to prove similarities and relating with one another to form closer social bonds.

Why Do We Need to Advance Women in Leadership?

Women and men have natural abilities in leadership. In the chart below, we can see that women have a natural tendency towards high empathy and strong interpersonal relationships.

Competency Women Men Difference
Self-Regard 97 102 -5
Interpersonal Relationships 101 97 +4
Social Responsibility 102 96 +6
Empathy 103 94 +9
Stress Tolerance 97 103 -7

Because of where natural strengths lie, women tend to be more open to performance feedback. They admit weaknesses as a strength and in doing so, they are more vulnerable and self-aware than their male counterparts.

Here are some other differences between men and women based on communication styles.

Women Communicate with a Focus on Intimacy and Connection

  • As an individual in a network of connections

  • Conversations are negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support to reach consensus

  • They frequently see others as potential collaborators

  • Life is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation

  • Protect from others’ attempts to push them away

  • Hierarchies are structured on friendship

Men Communicate with a One-Upmanship Mentality

  • Men engage the world as an individual in a hierarchical social order in which he is either one-up or one-down

  • Conversations are negotiations in which people:

    • try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can

    • protect themselves from others’ attempt to put them down and push them around

  • They frequently see others as adversaries

  • Life is a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure

  • Status comes from being in the center stage, and giving orders that others follow

  • Hierarchies are structured on power and accomplishment

Next Steps

Want to learn more? At Bridging Distance, we help people work well everywhere by providing expertise in leadership and team development for those located in the same place and virtually.

We offer assessments, workshops, training, and coaching to determine where your strengths and weaknesses are, see what to do next for maximum impact, and rocket you toward success.

Learn about our upcoming training sessions, including Women’s Leadership Summits.

This blog is part of our leadership series for individuals, teams, and women. Read them now:

Stefanie Heiter