Do Women Lead Differently?



Kim Kuhteubl is an award-winning producer, author and the founder of MeByDesign, an idea boutique for the design industry. She is moderating the panel “Women In Design” at Decorex on September 18th at 1:00 pm. Her book Branding + Interior Design is available on Amazon. 

When it comes to design, it’s not uncommon to describe objects in terms of their masculine and feminine qualities. Those descriptions become more loaded though when they’re applied to human beings. What does it mean to be feminine or masculine? Is the notion of gender inequality a dated one?

A generation of women worked hard to take gender out of the conversation when it came to their careers, skills and talents, especially in architecture, a traditionally male-dominant field of design. Because for some, femininity still comes with a stigma, especially given that contemporary culture has associated so many trivial behaviors with it, for example gossiping, acting emotionally crazy, fragility and—ironically—decorating. In a business setting, femininity has little context, but as more women continue to achieve unprecedented economic independence, mobility and visibility, it must, especially in the profession of interior design where 69 per cent of the population are women.


Although both women and men tend to agree on the relative importance of top-tier leadership traits—honesty, intelligence, organization and decisiveness—there are documented differences between them. Traditionally, “doing business” has placed a heavy emphasis on L-directed thinking, in other words logic, linear, sequence and analysis, often qualified as masculine. While R-directed approaches—aka feminine ones—that involve nonlinear, intuitive, holistic thinking and an emphasis on intangibles like intuition and emotional intelligence, where many women excel, have been given short shrift.

According to a study on women and leadership by Pew Research Center in 2014, women are much more likely than men to say that being compassionate is absolutely essential in a leader. In fact, fully two-thirds of all adults say that being compassionate better describes women than men. Women’s leadership potential sometimes shows up in what has been considered less conventional ways, like being responsive to a clients’ needs rather than asserting a point of view to get their own way—a definite asset in a residential design setting. In terms of process, women apply a different psychological framework to decision-making in terms of establishing an approach and assigning priorities with regard to function and appearance.

Dozens of studies have shown that women are generally better at reading facial expressions and at detecting lies. As early as age three, girls are better at inferring what others are thinking and divining emotions from the expression on someone’s face. This unspoken communication between them, their team members, and their colleagues affects how they lead, make decisions and negotiate. It also can impact their willingness to claim a high level of visibility doing business. 

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink refers to this heightened empathy, this ability to understand the subtleties of human interaction, and to stretch beyond the norm in the pursuit of purpose and meaning, as “high touch”. Is there a better way to describe the service of interior design? Whether it’s calling out a vendor or colleague, asking for your true value in negotiations, firing a difficult client, or saying “no” to their business in the first place, claiming and revaluing the feminine in doing business is like yin and yang. It’s an equal, interconnected and necessary component of the new, winning game.

Book your ticket to Decorex to see Kim's panel discussion on Monday 18th September