Soft Skills

Curse or blessing

Research by the management consulting firms Catalyst (2004) and McKinsey (2007), BCG (2020) has shown that companies with a minimum number of women (about one third) in the highest management boards actually generate better key indicators than companies without or with fewer women in management positions.

Management advisors base this on “typical female” leadership characteristics, the so-called “soft skills”: empathy, a willingness to cooperate, the ability to think in a holistic, networked manner and to communicate openly with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, the management of complexity and multiculturalism, a cooperative and participative leadership style, a strong sense of justice, and the renunciation of an attitude of power and rigid hierarchies.

Consequently, one might think that women have finally found their way into the highest management levels. But as hopeful as this thesis may sound, it proves to be deceptive upon closer examination.

On the one hand, the “soft skills” debate sends out the message: Women will make it into the executive chair, firstly because there are no longer enough men for these tasks (shortage of skilled workers), and secondly because women are simply better. In other words, they don’t really need to do anything but wait, and the miracle panacea “soft skills” will take effect all by itself.

The opposite discourse, on the other hand, warns women about the tough business of management and wants to teach them how to act successfully (“masculinely”). Both argumentations have in common that they subjectivize and individualize career, leadership and management and suggest that only the right personal qualities lead to success. This neglects the structural, economic, situational and social conditions that surround a leader.

Do soft skills really enable people to lead?

In surveys, subjects were asked to list attributes of successful managers. Both female and male participants listed characteristics that are by no means considered soft skills: Initiative, decisiveness, performance commitment, determination, dominance, persuasiveness, assertiveness and great self-confidence. These are qualities that are still associated with men rather than women in the prevailing public perception.

The majority of scientific studies conducted worldwide since the end of the 1980s, especially studies conducted in a specific corporate situation, deny significant gender-specific differences in leadership behavior. Rather, successful male and female leaders are similar in important aspects. But even if differences were found, this does not mean that certain “female abilities” are a priori given.

The underlying gender theory

In the meanwhile extensive literature on gender difference (e.g., Gildemeister & Wetterer 1992), two different basic positions can be distinguished:

  • the egalitarian position, which claims that differences between the genders are socially determined and can be overcome, and
  • the dualistic position, which asserts that there are fundamental differences between the genders, the root of which lies in their psychological and physical nature, which are also conditioned by socialization processes.

The fundamental problem of all approaches is the focus on the “female” social character, which establishes gender as the primary differentiating characteristic, particularly for women.

The “soft skills” debate is clearly oriented toward this dualistic position, as it knows how to name female characteristics that women possess qua nature or upbringing. Yet. historically, certain qualities have not been ascribed to women because they were considered naturally feminine, but rather of low value. The supposedly “good feminine attributes” have traditionally been those that led to the exclusion of women from certain positions and fields of employment. Men have an almost natural-born right to leadership positions, unlike women, who need to work hard to earn it.

The good mother and the hero

Most of the propagated “feminine attributes” fit the role of the caring yet organized mother who has a firm grip on her family but does not lose sight of loving relationships.

Complementary to the mother, the male role is that of the brave warrior, seemingly self-sufficient, who goes out into the wide world, but at the same time looking for the mother. In the company, the “hero” expects the woman to create a good atmosphere, cultivate a cooperative management style, offer humanity and warmth, and promote team spirit, i.e., exactly what is understood today by “soft skills”. This proposed role prevents women from becoming the first in higher positions.

Women often gladly accept this mother role, as it gives them recognition and puts them on safe ground. Nevertheless, if the woman does not fulfill this mother function, she is considered an inadequate boss. If she does fulfil it, she becomes hostage to a role that does not involve great authority, while merely acting on an internal level.

It is important to emphasize that these are additional demands on the female manager, because she is by no means released from the managerial task. This reveals a new double burden on women: unlike the tough manager, they have to walk a tightrope of always being feminine enough to meet the “gender stereotypical” expectations placed on them, and professional enough to be up to the task of leadership.


If “soft skills” alone do not promote the advancement of women to management positions, then other solutions would be more appropriate. And these have already been practiced for some time by internal and external control instances: by the state, employee associations and interest groups, which demand and promote equal opportunities and equality for all members of society on the basis of normative demands attempting to dismantle established privileges of individual groupings.

This is slowly but surely causing a paradigm shift and perhaps with the current “soft skills” debate, the asymmetry of “male/female”, “hard/soft”, “head/belly” will be reversed and the “female” will become the more desirable leadership model.

What do you think? We look forward to your comments!

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