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Women & Power 2021

The ‘empathy advantage’ of great women leaders

During the pandemic, women rewrote the emotional rules in the workplace and showed the might of vulnerability.

Dana Smith/for The Boston Globe

In the spring of 2019, Audra Bieg’s nose began to run. Maybe it’s a cold or allergies, she thought. But it turned out to be a cerebrospinal fluid leak. She was going to need brain surgery. What would her colleagues say? How would they react? Initially, she didn’t share much, even though she felt comfortable at work.

“I didn’t want people to think that after I was having brain surgery I wasn’t still going to do a great job or be successful,” says Bieg, then a principal consultant at consulting firm Slalom in Boston. “There was almost an internal anxiety and additional pressure that I was putting on myself by not being fully vulnerable.”


This reticence is familiar to any woman who has pumped in a bathroom, sat through a meeting while leaking breast milk, sheepishly ducked out for a school pickup, or shown up for work even when mentally or physically unwell for fear of losing face. “I didn’t want people to know or see or feel that I wasn’t going to be able to succeed,” Bieg says.

She took just two weeks off, not sharing her condition publicly. It made sense: For years, women have suppressed their emotions to operate like men often appear to — stoic, unflappable, devoted to work above all else.

But the pandemic forced a reckoning in which even the iciest leaders were caught on Zoom with shrieking children. Suddenly, qualities traditionally associated with women, such as empathy and compassion, were seen as something to leverage, not suppress. Finally, working “like a woman” was an asset.

And it was women who did the work: McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org’s Women in the Workplace 2021 survey of 423 organizations found that women leaders more consistently ensured manageable workloads for their teams, provided emotional support, and checked in on overall well-being than men, and 87 percent of companies called this labor critical.


Ann Powell, chief human resources officer for biopharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb, told her virtual audience at a recent Innovation@Work conference held by The Economist that the pandemic has offered an opportunity for a new style of management: more open, more vulnerable, more aligned with reality.

“The pandemic was a culture accelerator, and we really leaned in to encouraging vulnerability, authenticity, and humanity in our leaders. Listen to what your teams are experiencing, but also talk about how you’re feeling,” Powell said. “Our boxes on the screen are all the same size. Our dogs are all barking in the background, our kids are pulling on all of our sleeves. It stripped away the hierarchy and made us all more human.”

New research indicates that female-associated traits have been particularly effective in the COVID-era workplace. A study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology determined that bosses who were attentive to employees’ emotional needs helped workers stay engaged during the pandemic. Ohio State University associate professor Jasmine Hu, who studies leadership and teams, led the study. She specializes in “servant leadership,” an empathy-driven management style uniquely suited to modern realities. While servant leaders can be any gender, the style fits with “female leaders’ stereotypical characteristics of being nurturing, relationship-oriented, and tending to emotional needs,” she says.

The traditional view of leaders as strong, dominant problem-solvers who don’t make mistakes has shifted, Hu says. “Recently, scholars have criticized this assumption as wrong: Even the best leaders have their own vulnerable moments. It’s important for us to understand that there’s a more human side of leaders.” Now, she says, “Women’s pursuits or abilities are no longer viewed as detrimental, but [instead] as an advantage to their leadership abilities relative to men, and our research findings support this assertion.”


Leadership style can even make a lifesaving difference. A 2020 paper on female governors, also in The Journal of Applied Psychology, found that women’s leadership during COVID-19 was associated with fewer deaths. “States with women governors had fewer COVID-19 deaths than states with men governors, and when governors issued an early stay-at-home order, states with women governors were more responsive, as borne out by fewer COVID-19 deaths,” the authors wrote. “The qualitative analysis indicated a potential mechanism for that effect may be that women governors were more empathetic and confident, as shown in their briefings.”

Yet women are still hamstrung by gendered expectations. When high-ranking women leaders express happy, calm emotions, they’re perceived as better leaders, and when they modulate negative ones, they’re also perceived as effective, according to a new study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

There is a plus side to this discovery: Women shouldn’t feel compelled to suppress their happy emotions in favor of appearing remote, cool, and neutral. “It’s about being more honest. It gives [women] more of the opportunity to express honesty of positive emotion, more cheerful emotion,” explains University of California Riverside associate professor Thomas Sy, one of the study’s coauthors.


But it’s a slippery slope from empathy to manufactured emotion. “What some of the research suggests is that we’re fairly good at detecting when a leader is suppressing or hiding certain emotions,” Sy adds, “and what the evidence there says is, when we detect that someone is not being genuine with their emotional expression, it actually leads to the perception that they’re not effective.”

Case in point: The spectacular collapse of the two-faced “girl boss,” a post-Lean In term for executives who prided themselves on drive tempered by humanity, but who ended up imploding in a firestorm of bad behavior and recriminations. While projecting accessibility, they ran toxic workplaces employees said were based on tyranny and fear.

Steph Korey, CEO of luggage brand Away, portrayed herself as an approachable girl boss. But she left when plagued with accusations of fostering a cutthroat workplace culture. Self-help expert Rachel Hollis, who liked to refer to her followers as “Girl” and “Sis,” was also accused of intimidating workplace behavior after appearing to compare herself to Harriet Tubman and Marie Curie (and then blaming her team for it). Audrey Gelman, a founder of ostensibly supportive women’s co-working space The Wing, stepped down amid backlash over the company’s mistreatment of Black and brown employees.

The movement’s duplicitous icons had thrown over the Instagram-friendly feminist traits they exploited — empathy, vulnerability, and approachability — in favor of naked ambition. They weren’t genuine.


Replacing the girl boss are workplace authenticity experts such as University of Houston social psychologist Brené Brown, who became famous with her TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability.” Last month, she inked a deal with HBO Max for a series that will explore the framework of meaningful connection through uncomfortable emotions like empathy and anguish.

Closer to home, Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely teaches “Authentic Leader Development,” where students discuss “personal insights, experiences, ambitions, and fear” in the service of being more effective leaders. “The importance of vulnerability in a leader is that it creates connection,” says Ely, who stresses that vulnerability is not a gendered attribute, though we often associate this quality with women. She also cautions that “women leaders who exhibit stereotypically feminine traits tend to have a harder time winning respect in the workplace.”

Does the theoretical work in practice? For architect Lauren Begen, it did. When Begen had trouble getting pregnant and began fertility treatments, her work schedule suffered. “I was making excuse after excuse for why I was coming in an hour late, why I was having to skip out early, why I was randomly calling out of work the day before,” she says.

Finally, she planned to disclose the situation to her colleagues in a nonemotional, pre-planned meeting. “I went into it thinking, OK, I’m going to be super pragmatic about this and professional, and of course, [I] burst into tears within the first two minutes of conversation,” she says.

It was a risk. While Begen acknowledges that she had the financial security to quit her job if necessary, stopping work simply wasn’t a professional option. “It would have been a huge loss,” she says. To her surprise, the conversation transformed her relationship with her colleagues — and with herself.

“I felt like there was a huge weight off,” she says. “I think it really matured me professionally.” She took a chance in a fast-paced, competitive industry, where people typically “suck it up and figure it out,” she says, and the reaction was surprisingly positive.

Begen now runs her own Cambridge architecture firm, and has another baby on the way. She prizes the flexibility of running her own company.

As for Audra Bieg, after she returned to work, she discovered she would need another brain surgery, and this one wasn’t as quick. “It was incredibly painful. It was the worst recovery I’ve ever had in my life, even compared to childbirth,” she says. This time, she couldn’t gloss over it. She was going to need more time to recover. In a meeting with a colleague, she began to tear up. To her surprise, they were supportive. “It made me realize that I’m supported and get to captain my own ship,” she says.

With 1 in 3 women contemplating quitting a job or downshifting this year, leaving space for genuine emotion could make the difference for the future of the female workforce. Bieg’s openness was a catalyst for her career: She felt empowered to take a new job where she was more in control, and could make space for herself and her family.

And during the pandemic lockdown, she blocked off time for herself between noon and 1:30 p.m. to put her son down for a nap — a boundary that felt essential.

“I found that being honest with what I needed from a recovery perspective helped me be honest about what I needed for other things, too,” Bieg says. “I want to take my kid to school in the morning and don’t want to feel like I’m not able to succeed at my job because of that, or that others would be disappointed.”

It’s made her a more empathetic colleague, and she’s kinder with herself, too. “I encourage people to share what they need, because I feel like that made the difference for me personally,” she says.

Kara Baskin can be reached at Follow her @kcbaskin.