Women’s Leadership Edge: Research on Emotional Intelligence, Gender, and Job Level

04 Apr 2012 15:00 | Armelle Loghmanian

Women’s Leadership Edge:

Research on Emotional Intelligence, Gender, and Job Level

By Joshua Freedman

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As business becomes more complex with globalization, new generations, and the accelerating pace of innovation, the value of "emotionally intelligent leaders" is gaining ground.  A new analysis of over 24,000 leaders and workers shows this presents an important opportunity for female leaders who, statistically, have a slight edge in this domain in three key areas:  (1) EQ is made of numerous component parts, Females are particularly higher in some; (2) the largest gap is in the capacity to predict the emotional consequences of actions – but there are some areas where men score higher; (3) comparing those in leadership roles suggest that females who bring additional emotional insight and energy to their work are more able to progress in their careers. To benefit from this advantage, women leaders need to know more about EQ and the dynamics of this people-leadership resource.

Emotional intelligence (or EQ) means being smarter with feelings -- accurately appraising emotional data, and using that data to optimize decisions.  A growing body of evidence shows these capabilities are tied to improved leadership, effectiveness, relationships, decision-making, health, and wellbeing; which helps higher EQ leaders create greater economic and societal value (see www.6seconds.org/case).

While women and men alike have challenges in accurately identifying, managing, and applying the data and energy contained in emotions, a common perception is that women are more “tuned in” when it comes to feelings.  Numerous studies show that “Ms. Average” will have a slightly higher EQ score that “Mr. Average.”  A new analysis confirms this result, but presents three key new findings that are essential for understanding these gender variations.

 EQ Components

Just as cognitive intelligence, measured by IQ, is made of many components, EQ is multi-dimensional.  Various theoretical models of emotional intelligence posit slightly different components of the construct, but all recognize a dimension tied to accurately appraising emotional data, one tied to managing or integrating that data, and a dimension of application.  In the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence, we structure these into a three-step process for putting EQ into action:

  •  Awareness is “Know Yourself” – accurately assessing emotional data.
  •  Management is “Choose Yourself” – consciously selecting emotional response.
  • Direction is “Give Yourself” – purposefully applying emotion toward significance.

In these three dimensions, analysis of 24,436 people from around the globe shows women have a slight edge in all three.  In the Know Yourself area, Ms. Average scores 1.8% higher than Mr. Average – but only 0.4% higher in the Choose Yourself area (see Figure 1: EQ and Gender, Overview).
The implication is that women tend to be slightly more self-aware will not be a surprise.  It’s important to note that these scores are normative, approximately distributed on a bell curve, which means that among the 12,236 women in this sample, roughly 7,300 will be near the middle.  Some 1,800 will be much higher on EQ, and approximately the same number will be much lower.  The same is true for the 12,200 males in this group.  This means that any given female is not necessarily higher on EQ than her male counterpart, but on average, women are stronger in this domain.

 EQ Dynamics

Within the three component parts of the Six Seconds Model are eight specific, learnable, measurable competencies. Looking at this more detailed view, it becomes apparent that women have a stronger EQ capability in certain areas of emotional intelligence – where men (on average) have more strength in other components.

The greatest single gender gap is in a competency called “Apply Consequential Thinking,” which enables people to pause and evaluate the costs and benefits of their actions before they leap. This requires blending both tactical/factual information and human/emotional data to make a decision that will work – and work well with people.

The competency where men have the greatest advantage is in “Navigate Emotions,” which enables people to harness the insight and energy of feelings to move forward intentionally: Responding rather than reacting. This is also the lowest-scoring area for women in the sample, suggesting that more often females will find their emotions in charge rather than proactively and mindfully working with emotion. Because of the female edge in Enhance Emotional Literacy and Apply Consequential Thinking, however, “Ms. Average” has the capability to understand and evaluate emotions better that “Mr. Average.” So if she applies these strengths (rather than trying to just push emotions away), females could more quickly move toward mastery.

Increase Empathy is another area where females are scoring higher – which aligns with typical societal expectations of female nurture. In the workplace, this translates to an important competitive advantage in the ability to influence and engage others. But, higher empathy paired with lower navigation can lead to emotional overwhelm.

 Leadership Differences

Within the global sample, 6,236 respondents are in a senior leadership role (40% of these are female).  Because emotional intelligence is correlated with career success, we know that people in higher-level roles will generally have higher EQ – and this is confirmed in this dataset.  What’s intriguing are the changes in gender gaps comparing the full data with the leaders’ data.
For example, one of the areas that seems most powerfully linked to career progress is “Pursue Noble Goals,” the capability to put purpose into action.  In Figure 2, above, males have a slight edge in this competency, but in Figure 3 we can see that for those in leadership positions, there’s essentially no gender difference.

In “Enhance Emotional Literacy” and “Apply Consequential Thinking” the gap widens among leaders, suggesting that female leaders are especially insightful in the emotional domain. 

The third competency where the dynamics are shifting is “Exercise Optimism”; among leaders the gap widens as females pull further ahead.  As is shown in Figure 3, this becomes the 2nd highest competency among female leaders, providing a resource for solving problems and generating energy.

Between job levels, the only area where males are starting to close the gap is Increase Empathy.  In the general population, males score over 3% lower than females, but among leaders it’s only a 2.6% difference (but females in leadership are still considerably higher in this area).

Women who want to advance their careers need to tap into the capabilities to Pursue Noble Goals and Engage Intrinsic Motivation, the two competencies where those in leadership have the biggest advantage. In developing EQ strengths, “Ms. Average” should prioritize Navigating Emotions while capitalizing on stand-out strengths of Enhancing Emotional Literacy and Applying Consequential Thinking. The bottom line is that as the value of emotional intelligence continues to be recognized, females have an important opportunity for creating added value and building workplaces where people thrive.

About the Author
Joshua Freedman is the COO of Six Seconds (http://www.6seconds.org), the global leaders in emotional intelligence development.  Six Seconds has offices in 10 countries, publishes seven validated individual and organizational assessments, and an extensive library of learning and development resources.  Freedman is one of the founders of the organization, and he is the author of two books on the business applications of the science of emotion, At the Heart of Leadership and INSIDE CHANGE. His web site is http://www.JMFreedman.com

About the Data
This data comes from the SEI, Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Assessment, a normative measure of EQ skills; on the SEI, the median score is 100, with a standard deviation of 15, much like a traditional IQ test.  For this analysis, we used an international dataset collected primarily in corporate environments over the last five years in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East in English, Italian, Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese.  For this analysis, the data was scored using a special global norm to allow a more accurate comparison between the various languages.

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