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Achieving Gender Balance When Leadership Has Different Rules for Women.

What traits make a good leader? It depends on who you ask according to a new report from Oliver Wyman. Men and women across all industries have different views on what a "good" leader is – agreeing on only one key trait in their top three.

Men rank being direct, decisive and confident as the top three traits, while women rank empowers teams, confident and collaborative.

​"Women in senior leadership positions remain elusive in corporate America with less than 6 percent of female CEOs in the US," said Terry Stone, a partner with Oliver Wyman. "A major reason is because women's leadership readiness is most often judged by senior men who put weight on traits they find important, which differ from women."

Given men dominate the C-Suite, only 40 percent of women said their leadership style was reflected in their company's leadership, compared with nearly 70 percent of men. However, the leadership traits women cite are essential to a more inclusive culture.

The report titled, "Making the Invisible Visible," also found:

  • Results don't speak for themselves Being "results-driven" matters more to women than men. Women rank the importance of results as third compared to men who rank results at tenth.

  • Qualified women are unintentionally left on the sidelines – Women are not top of mind for new roles because they are less likely to self-advocate, underestimate their own readiness and face bias on whether they are willing to take on more work.

  • Implicit biases and microaggressions are exhausting It's a tiring road, and many women choose to stop fighting and opt out.

The report includes insight from some of the senior women interviewed including:

  • "Women begin their careers with a mindset if we do the best job we can, keep our heads down, and have the right answers, someone will notice." – Vice President, Healthcare

  • "There was a regional opening and I said, 'What about me?' My boss asked, 'You would travel?' And I said, 'Of course. Why would you think I wouldn't?'" – Senior Vice President, CHRO, Financial Services

  • "If you're a man and you raise your voice or have a strong opinion, you're assertive. If you're a woman, you're over-passionate and aggressive." – Senior Vice President, Healthcare

  • "You need a reason to get up in the morning, believe your voice is heard, and your opinions matter." -- CEO, Aviation

Over Mentored and Under Sponsored

What does help women breakthrough is sponsorship. In fact, 95 percent of the women interviewed mentioned having a sponsor was critical to their success. Sponsors go beyond mentorship and lend their personal credibility to advocate for women. Sponsors see the big picture, recognize readiness and push candidates forward. They also play a big role in helping women expand their networks while building up the confidence gap women often face.

But a good sponsor is not enough. Based on the interviews, women leaders who broke through had two distinct personality traits – they are curious problem solvers and are extremely resilient.

"The business world defaults to a White male norm in terms of perceptions and biases," concluded Stone. "This is not conscious, but a result of one group dominating the culture for so long. It's time to change the culture."

The report offers insight into what companies can do to change their corporate culture including making sure inclusive leadership starts at the top, treating inclusion and diversity like a business, and investing heavily in sponsorship.


This report is based on over 160 in-depth conversations with senior women executives from the United States and Canada, across a broad range of industries, including healthcare, financial services, procurement, and more over the last five years. It also leveraged a national survey of 300 male and female senior level executives.

About Oliver Wyman

Oliver Wyman is a global leader in management consulting. With offices in 60 cities across 29 countries, Oliver Wyman combines deep industry knowledge with specialized expertise in strategy, operations, risk management, and organization transformation. The firm has more than 5,000 professionals around the world who work with clients to optimize their business, improve their operations and risk profile, and accelerate their organizational performance to seize the most attractive opportunities. Oliver Wyman is a business of Marsh & McLennan Companies.

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