Are women really worth a damn as leaders? Or is the diversification effort–from those cozy women’s initiatives to the hard-headed firm strategies to avoid sexual harassment suits–simply political correctness writ large?

There’s been a lot said from both sides of the aisle recently. And from some surprising corners.

The Hay Group recently announced that, from a  series of in-depth interviews with dozens of executives and managers, they had determined that leadership traits like empathy, conflict-management, self-awareness and influence (components of emotional intelligence) were consistently tied to successful business outcomes within matrixed organizations. And who scored highest in those attributes?  Hay Group’s Emotional and Social Competency Inventory–which includes information on the emotional intelligence of more than 17,000 individuals worldwide–found these traits to be more prevalent in executive-level women in general management roles than in their male peers.  For example, the strengths of:

— Empathy was found in 33% of women, compared to 15% of men (making it more than twice as prevalent in women).

— Conflict management was seen in 51% of women, vs. 29% of men.

— Influence was found in 32% of women, compared to 21% of men.

— Self-awareness was strongly evident in 19% of women, but just 4% of men.

“Hay Group research has found that high levels of emotional intelligence are critical in matrix work environments, where individuals are required to lead by influence, rather than lead through direct authority,”  says Ruth Malloy, global managing director for leadership and talent at Hay Group.

So what’s a matrix work environment?  The name comes from its resemblance to a table (matrix) where every element is included in a row as well as a column–that is, a hierarchy where authority flows sideways across departmental boundaries as well as up and down the ladder.  In other words, like most law firms.

"As organizations become more global and the matrix environment becomes more common, their success will hinge on their leaders’ ability to leverage collaborative approaches," according to Malloy.

And why is it that women are the ones with more of these skills?

“Women often face barriers throughout their careers that require them to develop these [emotional intelligence] skills to excel and advance in their organizations, in effect better preparing them for the challenges and complexities of leading in a matrix,” says Malloy.

While you’re still thinking about the matrix issue, let’s go to the results of another recent study published in the Harvard Business Review entitled "Are Women Better Leaders than Men?"  In a 2011 review of over 7,000 leaders in an array of occupations and a broad swath of organizations, women outperformed men across the board, from forepersons to senior managers. In the category of top management (including executive and senior members), for example, 67.7% of women were judged effective leaders versus 57.7% of men.

"The women’s advantages were not at all confined to traditionally women’s strengths. In fact, at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts–and" –wait for it, all you managing partners who are still not convinced–"the higher the level, the wider that gap grows."

Which of course means that most law firms today are arguably led by less effective leaders than they might be.

"At all levels, women are rated higher in fully 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree—taking initiative and driving for results—have long been thought of as particularly male strengths. As it happened, men outscored women significantly on only one management competence in this survey—the ability to develop a strategic perspective."  Strategic perspective being a vitally important competency, we would all agree, but one that doesn’t differ by gender in this data once you get to top management.

Yet, as the report points out, the majority of leaders (64%) are still men, and the higher the level, the more men there are. In this survey, men made up 78% of top managers, 67% of the next level down (that is, senior executives reporting directly to the top managers), and 60% at the manager level below that.

"As leaders in organizations look hard to find the talent they need to achieve exceptional results, they ought to be aware that many women have impressive leadership skills. Our research shows these leadership skills are strongly correlated to organizational success factors such as retaining talent, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and profitability."

For those of you thinking that law leadership is a different matter altogether, in a followup article analyzing this research on the basis of roles, women outperformed men as effective leaders specifically in law too—59.4% compared to 54.7%, respectively. (Interestingly, men beat out women in effective leadership in the category of administrative/clerical work. Go figure.)

Say the authors: "It’s hard not to conclude that when it comes time for promotion, some — many — highly qualified women are being overlooked  The good news about this research isn’t that women are better than men. It’s that both men and women can develop their leadership skills and abilities, and no area need be reserved for one or the other."

So what is it that is holding back our law firms and law departments from having the most effective leadership?

According to a new whitepaper based on research by The TRACOM Group and DeLaPorte & Associates, versatility—closely related to emotional intelligence—predicts managers’ diversity and inclusiveness behaviors. Versatile people are flexible, responsive and adaptable–people with high versatility outperform their lower-versatility counterparts across a broad spectrum of performance measures, adjusting their behaviors in each situation in order to interact effectively and gain support of co-workers and others to maximize productivity.

The study of 143 managers found that managers with high versatility were significantly more effective at promoting diversity and inclusiveness than managers with lower versatility.  These managers, rated up to 17% more effective than low versatility managers, were more likely to engage in pro-diversity behaviors, such as actively trying to understand others’ experiences and perspectives, recognizing employees’ contributions, fostering a welcoming environment for the team, and valuing different opinions. In other words, they showed strengths in some of those same areas that the Hay Group study found critical for leadership.

Perhaps combining those two studies can give us some insight into why women, if such effective leaders, are nonetheless not the ones leading even some of our law firms.  If it takes managers with emotional intelligence to promote diversity and inclusiveness, and men, who are our dominant leaders, often come up short on that measure, it would follow that women aren’t as likely to be included in firm management.

As the HBR article concludes: "What it takes to develop great leaders, whether male or female, is their own willingness to develop, being given opportunities to grow through challenging job assignments, and support through mentoring and coaching from senior leaders."

So is the leadership vacuum at the top all the fault of those men?

What about the multitudes of programs across the country aimed at making women feel welcome and supported? Some of the more outspoken assessments recently of these programs come from women who think the’re all a bunch of hokum, even though it is women who often conceive and run them. 

In the Careerist’s "Are Women’s Initiatives Distractions?", Vivia Chen quotes Sallie Krawcheck, one of the country’s leading female executives, as saying: "If you look around Wall Street and corporate America, we’re putting women on diversity councils; we’re putting them in mentoring programs; we’re giving them special leadership training, telling them how to ask for promotions—but we are not promoting them. My goodness, we’re just making women busier."

Chen also cites Patricia Gillette, a partner at Orrick, who has her doubts about these initiatives: women often "let firms off the hook" by participating in these "soft" projects, giving firms the illusion that they’ve fulfilled their duty to diversity "because women are in charge of the women’s initiatives." Meanwhile, according to Gillette,"the leadership roles that influence firm policy continue to be filled by men."

Subtitled "Latham & Watkins’ Women Enriching Business (WEB) programme has caused a stir after arranging a canapé-making evening for its members," The Lawyer reports on Latham & Watkins’ attempt to schedule a cooking event in the UK as part of a women’s initiative.  Similarly, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer made national news in March for celebrating International Women’s Day with a "Bake Off". While one assessment was that such events "are better than nothing," others think they "sell women short."  Do women know what they want?

Then there’s the role of women in helping or hurting their own. While reporting that women lawyers are not really helping other women, Vivia Chen also says that, in spite of the data, she’s not so sure women make better leaders.

For Mad Men fans, last week’s episode about Megan Draper’s decision to quit the ad agency where Peggy Olsen, the rare female copywriter, had been coaching her toward success may strike home. Are women lawyers more on the Peggy Olsen track? Driven to success and willing to do all it takes, and more, to achieve it?  Or the Megan Draper track?  Not so sure this is their dream job?