A Winner in the Battle of the Sexes

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Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

With all the attention these days on women in the office, from the boardroom to hiring ratios, a difficult question arises: Are women actually better fit for leadership positions than men? In other words, based on gender alone, should there be more women leaders in business? After all, studies show companies led by women outperform others.

One line of reasoning goes something like this: If emotional intelligence (EI) makes leaders more effective, and women on average score higher on those abilities, then more women should be leaders. But, as we know, statistically women are underrepresented in the higher ranks of business. That’s a contentious issue—one that touches on forces like gender bias, to be sure.

There were six main drivers of success among the women CEOs in Korn Ferry’s study, “Women CEOs Speak.” To bust through the glass ceiling, for example, women CEOs worked harder and longer than men did in the same positions. Sadly, no surprise there.

But I was intrigued to see that specific distinguishing traits found in women CEOs resonate with my understanding of emotional intelligence. The women CEOs were excellent at managing themselves, as evidenced by competencies such as resilience in the face of stress and agility in responding to changing demands. And they were outstanding at leveraging relationships and teamwork in achieving business results.
EI, remember, consists of at least four components: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Nested within those four domains are workplace and leadership competencies that make someone an outstanding performer. Unlike IQ, there is no single “EQ” score. Instead, we each have a profile of strengths and limits across the range of 12 EI competencies.

Assessing all 12 of these competencies, research by Ruth Malloy, formerly of Korn Ferry, and Signe Spencer, a Korn Ferry client research partner, found that women who have reached the top ranks of corporations often outdo men at the same levels in their emotional intelligence competencies. That comparison was made using executives’ scores on the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI), a 360-degree assessment of the full range of EI competencies. Analysis of data from 18,000 executives revealed that women executives outdid men in competencies essential for effectiveness in a matrixed organization, such as empathy, conflict management and influence.

On most assessment instruments for emotional intelligence that I’m aware of, women’s norms on average are higher than men’s. Women, for example, tend to score higher on indicators of empathy and social skill. But other research finds that men tend to do better than women on average with regards to reports of their own self-confidence and ability to handle emotional upsets.

These differences between genders are for group averages. If you did a scatter plot of how men and women score on tests of EI, you’d get something like two largely overlapping bell curves. That overlap means that some women may be as able to handle upsetting emotions as well as most or all men, and some men may be as empathic as most or all women.
In selecting someone for a given post, a promotion or further development, you don’t look at that person’s group average. You look at the person. So when it comes to how fit an executive might be as a leader, the answer depends on the particulars of that man or woman, not on his or her gender.

Still, the kicker comes when you look at star performers, leaders identified by their own companies as “outstanding,” based both on hard financials as well as “soft” indicators like people wanting to work for them. In other research by Malloy, the groups of outstanding men and women on average had the same ESCI scores.
But women at the top of the house had a wider range of scores on emotional intelligence than did men in similar positions; when they were good, they were very, very good.


  • Daniel Goleman

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute