Are women better than men at handling a crisis?

Are men better at handling a crisis than women are? Are women indecisive and less reliable than men? Do women generally seek others’ approval before they make a decision? Is women’s inclination to listen to diverse view points seen as a gender weakness?

According to Dr Therese Houston, women generally advance in leadership roles when there is a crisis either at the horizon, or one already unfolding: “any leader stepping into a crisis situation is more likely to fall and fail”.

Could there be an argument made here that the unconscious bias so deeply engrained in our societies is setting up the women to fail? Or is it a matter of trying to see if a woman can match the perceived might of her male counterparts and prove she can “man-up”?

Does the outcome of a crisis depend on the gender of the person handling it? Some would say yes, others would say no. There can be no generalisation when it comes to who should be in charge of a crisis response team, crisis cell, or media relations during a crisis – what we need is the perfect combination of skills, knowledge and emotional intelligence.

I have heard poeple argue that a man should be in charge when a crisis strikes – because men are known to be decisive, considerate, measured and credible, and they are commanding more respect from internal and external stakeholders than a woman is.

Others uphold the view that a woman should be put in charge in a crisis because, if and when it all goes wrong, it’s easier to blame a woman than it would be to blame a man. After all, women are known to be delicate beings who don’t handle pressure well, aren’t they? No, they certainly aren’t.

Dr Krumer of St. Gallen University argued that “physically speaking, men are still stronger than women, on average. But if you’re talking about mental toughness, maybe in certain circumstances it’s women who have the edge.”

The research on how men versus women act under pressure undertaken by Radboud University concludes “that women will offer to take on those tasks they know they can do well, projects that are solidly within their skill sets. By contrast, men will be drawn to the projects with the biggest potential pay-offs and have much less concern for whether or not they might fail”.

When dealing with a crisis, can we afford to go on a whim and assume that it will all go well if we just close our eyes and wish it to go away? Or should we make sure that the individual we’d want to handle the public fallout of the crisis we’re going through is measured, considerate and appropriately skilled?

I’ve seen both genders in action during some memorable and complex crisis situations. What I’m about to outline below is not meant to be interpreted as a sweeping generalisation – they are my direct experiences and observations of the negative traits of both genders when dealing with a crisis:

Men:

  • find it difficult to improvise or seek immediate alternative solutions
  • are much more afraid of their peer male pressure than of any public or stakeholder perception
  • very rarely say “I don’t know”, or ask “what should we do?”
  • “collaboration” is seldom a word not found in their vocabulary
  • tend to avoid any form of public engagement
  • find it unsettling to be seen to be advised by women

Women:

  • play down the severity of a crisis, often dismissing its wider implications
  • are too politically correct at times: they ask for views and advice from too many parties, losing the “fight back” momentum
  • seek confirmation and approval before they act
  • avoid a confrontational situation for fear that it may worsen the crisis faced
  • take full responsibility for the fallout, but seldom any credit for the success
  • wrongly believe that they need to constantly prove why they are there

If I were to choose the best person to handle a crisis, I’d have both a man and woman. I believe that if we have the maturity and common sense to remove the preconceptions and stereotypical bias of our societies, we can put the best people in charge.

Crisis and issues management have very little to do with gender, boardroom quotas, diversity, political correctness and gender representation.

If people die as a result of a crisis unfolding, no one cares which gender the person in charge had. If people lose their jobs because of a poorly managed situation, how likely is it that the headlines will read “they should have put a man/woman in charge?”

What I do know is that the women I’ve worked with in crisis situations were much calmer and more in control than the men. I also know that these women tried really hard to be heard and listened to – the effort they put in was far greater than that of any of their male counterparts.

Those who know me know very well what my views on diversity are: equal opportunities first, meritocracy second and diversity third.

Regardless of your job title – and even more so if you are in an executive role – I would recommend you sought the right attitude and competence first from those individuals you think would be best suited to handle a crisis.

People fake it really well, and you don’t want to wait until it all comes crashing down to realise you’ve made a mistake. If you faced or handled a crisis, you know that every choice we make leads us in a different direction. You should make the best choice so that it takes you in the right direction.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.

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Founding Chartered PR Practitioner, CIPR Board member (2018), former UK Government Communication Services and Institute of Directors mentor, published author and university lecturer, Ella has almost 20 years of high level government and international organisations experience in corporate reputation, leadership and crisis management, across business disciplines and governments, including investment markets, lender organisations, national and international media, NGOs and affected communities. She is a 2014 Service Award Winner of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Assessor of CIPR's Chartered Scheme, an elected member of the CIPR Council (2017-2018), Founder of CIPR’s Energy Leadership Platform, former Chair of CIPR’s Foresight Panel and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management. She handled some of the most prominent international crisis of recent times, she developed the Leadership Development Programme for SPE’s MENA young engineers and she has also been an adviser to several governments on their national branding strategies. Her list of clients includes McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Total, BP, Shell, Centrica, KazTransOil, Averda, The World Bank, Private Investment Development Group, the European Commission, the European Bank For Reconstruction and Development and many others. She is also Robert Gordon University's Lead Trainer for the Crisis Communication Diploma (CIPR Specialist Diploma).

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