More Less
More Less

How female leaders are transforming workplace dynamics

Opinion image

The significance of a healthy workplace climate is increasingly being acknowledged in the corporate world. Leaders have a pivotal role in cultivating a healthy or a toxic workplace environment. Then the question is which attributes of leaders stand out in determining the relational culture of a workplace, and what role leader’s gender plays. 

To explore the impact of female leadership on workplace climate, we use data from a study we conducted in 2019, involving 24 major corporations in Turkey from 6 prominent sectors: construction, chemicals, defense, energy, finance, and textile. We managed to collect data from over 2,000 corporate professionals – both leaders and subordinates – on the relational dynamics at the workplace and climate perceptions at unprecedented detail.

As men outnumber women in leadership roles, existing body of research has pointed to stark gender differences in competitiveness, risk aversion, and willingness to become a leader, to explain this ubiquitous phenomenon. Our data uncovers an interesting fact: Female leaders do not possess ‘male-like’ qualities. While having comparable cognitive capacity to their male counterparts, female leaders are less competitive, more risk-averse, and demonstrate higher levels of cognitive empathy and more progressive beliefs about gender roles. This suggests that women do not need to adopt male attributes to climb the corporate ladder; they can lead successfully with their distinct strengths. Female leaders bring unique qualities to the table, and we seek the answer to how they shape workplace climate differently than their male counterparts.

We find that female subordinates receive more professional and personal support from female leaders, compared to male leaders. Moreover, both male and female employees bond more with their female colleagues when working under a female leader. In contrast, male-led departments exhibit heavy male homophily. Female leadership, it appears, changes this pattern, and creates a more inclusive workplace. In turn, a more inclusive social structure helps retain female employees, indicated by lower probability of quits under female leadership.

Despite the finding that female leaders foster a more inclusive workplace, we reveal that more than half of the employees voiced a preference for male leadership. Our findings further demonstrate that women reported lower workplace satisfaction and worse perceptions of meritocracy in their workplace when working under female leaders. 

Our empirical evidence suggests that support from leaders, irrespective of gender, plays a crucial role in shaping employee sentiments. Female employees in particular paint a gloomy picture of their workplace if support from female leaders falls short. Interestingly, this result is not mirrored for female employees working under unsupportive male leaders, nor for male employees who lack support from their leaders. We explain this puzzling result with female employees having greater expectations from their female leaders, a phenomenon documented by prior research. 

Overall, our results point to two important directions for achieving a positive workplace climate. First, increasing female presence in leadership positions can promote a more inclusive relational climate and improve retention of females. Second, leader’s support is essential in establishing a healthy workplace climate where employees are happy. 

© Sule Alan, Gozde Corekcioglu, Mustafa Kaba, and Matthias Sutter 

Sule Alan is Professor and Director of Research at European University Institute (EUI)

Gozde Corekcioglu is Assistant Professor at Ozyegin University and IZA Research Affiliate 

Mustafa Kaba is Senior Research Fellow at Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods

Matthias Sutter is Professor and Director of Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods and IZA Research Fellow


Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.


Related IZA World of Labor content:

Bosses matter: The effects of managers on workers' performance by Kathryn L. Shaw

Gender differences in corporate hierarchies by Antti Kauhanen

Gender differences in competitiveness by Mario Lackner

Gender differences in wages and leadership by Mario Macis

Gender differences in risk attitudes by Antonio Filippin

Employers and the gender wage gap by John Forth and Nikolaos Theodoropoulos

Foto by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash