Women in Leadership Today and Societal Roadblocks – Part 4

By Jordan Winberg

The following article is part of a multi-part series of excerpts from the author’s senior thesis. Begin with Part 1. 


Do Women Lead Worse?

It is now well established that it is possible for social expectations to be harmful to females in leadership in theory. In practice, do women actually lead significantly worse than men? Alice Eagly, PhD, has made significant leaps in the development of the answer to this question.

Eagly & Johnson (1990) conducted a meta-analysis of 3 studies on male/female leadership to see if one gender was the more “natural” or better leader. Differences between task accomplishment, maintenance of interpersonal relationships (more specifically, tending to the morale and welfare of people they are involved with), and autocratic (leading without considering the opinions of others or leading using your personal opinion as the primary decision-making factor) vs democratic (taking many opinions into account and tending to make decisions based on the whole) leadership styles were measured between genders.  No significant difference was seen in task accomplishment or interpersonal relationships (Eagly & Johnson, 1990).

However, women tended to lead more democratically, whereas men tended to be less interpersonal and more autocratic. These findings were consistent in laboratory and assessment studies. Studies suggest that democratic leadership encourages more submissive and happier staff along with an environment that encourages the sharing of ideas than autocratic leadership (Bhatti & Maitlo & Shaikh & Aamir & Hashmi & Shaikh, 2012).

A second meta-analysis, which contained 45 different studies, was conducted stating that women were more likely to lead with more of a transformational style and a transactional style characterized by contingent reward behaviors. Conversely, males lead with transactional style characterized by active and passive management by exception and laissez-faire style (Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & Engen, 2003).

Researchers went on to state that these differences favored the female leadership style: “the implications of these findings are encouraging for female leadership because other research has established that all of the aspects of leadership style on which women exceeded men relate positively to leaders’ effectiveness whereas all of the aspects on which men exceeded women have negative or null relations to effectiveness” (Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & Engen, 2003).

If women lead just as well or better than men, then why do we see such a staggering difference between male and female participation in leadership roles? Even if social expectations are set up to make women worse leaders, i.e. through lowering self-esteem, making them less assertive, and influencing their future goals, in practice, women don’t seem to have issues effectively leading (Eagly & Johnson, 1990; Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & Engen, 2003; Eagly, & Carli, 2003). Therefore, if social expectations do not keep women from leading effectively, perhaps there are additional environmental factors that keep women from obtaining, keeping, and/or advancing in leadership positions.


Comparing Math Performance

Women’s performance math is an effective place to begin this discussion. Women do not pursue engineering, science, or math related fields as often as men (Warner, 2014). Many people believe this is because women are innately “not as good at math.” Scientists Quinn & Steele (1999) set out to find the answer to this question by testing two different groups of men and women on their mathematical ability.

One group of subjects was told, before taking the exam, that the women were likely to do worse than the men. The second group of subjects was told, before taking the exam, that the women and men were likely to perform equally well. The women who were told they would not perform as well as the men scored significantly lower than the women who were expecting to have equal scores. Thus, this evidence supports the idea that differences in math performance between men and women may be due to a learned difference.

While there isn’t any existing body of research that links mathematical ability with leadership ability, there is an important lesson to be learned from this study: stereotypes not only affect how one is perceived by others, but they also affect how one perceives his or herself. This affect was therefore coined the “stereotype threat”.

The stereotype threat states that when a negative stereotype exists, the group the stereotype is centered around is likely to believe it and suffer adverse effects (Quinn & Steele, 1999). This theory, could, therefore, be extended to any negative stereotype, such as the idea that women are not as gifted leaders. Perhaps women are told they are not gifted leaders, and they do not pursue leadership opportunities because they believe it is true; regardless of existing bodies of evidence that suggests otherwise.

Research states that persons who over-estimate the responsibility and work required to lead are less likely to be motivated to lead (Felfe & Schyns, 2014). In extension, it is quite possible women are less motivated to pursue leadership positions, as they are told it is likely to be difficult for them (stereotype threat).

Continue reading Part 5 here

Jordan WinbergJordan Winberg is…

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