Women and men don't manage any differently -- they just talk like they do, a new academic study says.
The study pokes holes in the widespread perception that female managers lead in a more collegial, less bureaucratic manner than their allegedly top-down male counterparts.
What it concludes is that both men and women rely on a mix of so-called masculine and feminine approaches to management.
In fact, the unpublished study says men, rather than being narrowly autocratic, are just as likely to be non-hierarchical and accommodating to employees as women.
"Our study clearly suggests that the effect of owner sex on organizational characteristics and managerial practices is more of a myth than a reality," the three academic authors write.
Jennifer Cliff, one of the authors, agrees that the findings fly in the face of a common assumption that women managers are playing the primary role in bringing a more collaborative spirit to business.
"A lot of the [academic] literature says women will save the workplace," says Prof. Cliff, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and family enterprise at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
"But men are doing things with a feminine approach as well," says Prof. Cliff, part of a team that interviewed 229 small business owners in the mid-1990s, including 141 men and 88 women.
She suggests that the conception that men and women manage with different gender styles arises from the leaders' rhetoric, rather than how they actually run their companies.
A content analysis of the study's interviews shows that owners of each sex talk as if they lead according to gender stereotypes, but then they go out and act in less gender-specific ways.
It means "they're not really walking the talk," says Prof. Cliff, who collaborated on the study with Nancy Langton, a professor in the faculty of commerce at University of British Columbia and Howard Aldrich, a sociology professor from University of North Carolina.
"There is a possible mismatch between the rhetoric and the practice of management," says Prof. Cliff, whose co-authored study is titled "On their Own Terms? Gendered Rhetoric versus Business Behaviour in Small Firms."
The study quotes one female manager: "I want the employees to view everyone here as more of a group of women working together towards satisfying their own personal needs. I want them to view the business as part of their support network, not just their job."
Contrast this with a male owner, who said of his employees: "They are being led and they need to agree with where I'm leading them."
Prof. Cliff says the disconnect between talk and behaviour may be stressful for some managers, both male and female, as they become aware that they are not acting in a style consistent with their words.
It may also create tension for employees and subordinates who find that their bosses lead in a much different way than how they speak.
The management world has been sharply divided on this issue. Some argue that there is no difference in how men and women manage. But there is a growing view that female leaders foster flat organizations and are more responsive to their employees, while men manage through a command-and-control system.
The study says both male and female leaders appear to have been heavily influenced by a "feminization" of management theory in the 1990s, when ideas about flat organizations, teamwork and diversity came into vogue.
If that's true, it's encouraging news to Carol Stephenson, the president of Lucent Technologies Canada Inc. She believes that good leaders use a variety of styles, but she's still convinced that women tend to be more collaborative.
"They are very good listeners and they are not afraid to say that they don't know," Ms. Stephenson says. In her view, women are still more likely to cut through the ego and power issues and focus on just getting things done.
"I believe that feminine styles are the way of success for the future," says Ms. Stephenson, who would like to see more research on leadership in large organizations.
According to the study, one problem with past research was that it has been based on interviews of middle managers. Female middle managers, for example, may feel obliged to conform to an organization's more masculine leadership style.
But the Vancouver study relies on small-business owners, who have the independence to put their personal stamp on the practices and structure of their firms.
Another theory is that industries dominated by male-owned firms, or firms with largely male employees, would be led by managers with primarily masculine leadership traits, while women-dominated industries and firms would be guided by feminine leadership characteristics.
But the Vancouver study found that the dominant gender of the industry or firm does not determine the masculine or feminine orientation of leadership.
The study acknowledges that other factors may come into play, such as firm size. Women are more likely to run smaller companies than men, and smaller companies tend to have less bureaucracy.