In 2012, women held just 3.8% of Chief Executive Officer positions in Fortune 500 companies, and 90 out of 535 seats in US Congress. Much has been written about why women are so severely underrepresented in senior leadership – from poor childcare provisions to institutional bias. One thing researchers can’t agree on is whether there are fewer women leaders because they’re less effective at the job, or because society expects them to be.
One theory goes that society generally associates successful leadership with stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits such as assertiveness and dominance, and so disapproves of female leaders because they violate these gender norms. As a result women experience greater obstacles to reaching the upper echelons. In the 1970s Virginia Schein came up with the phrase ‘think manager-think male’ to explain the automatic association between leadership and masculinity – an association which still exists, in certain circumstances, today (see a previous post here). But with the recent rise of transformational leadership and its emphasis on traditionally ‘feminine’ traits like empathy, collaboration and emotional intelligence, could the expectations of female leaders be shifting?
Of course, there is no universal rule: different individuals are differently suited to different situations, and context is, as ever, king. To that end, a study published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology aimed to add a more nuanced insight to the ‘male vs female leaders’ debate. By analyzing the results of 99 different studies that measured leaders’ effectiveness from 1962 to 2011, the researchers were able to unpick the situations in which male or female leaders excelled.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results suggested that the culture of the organization makes a difference: in traditionally male dominated, masculine organizations like government or the military, male leaders were more effective , while women triumphed in more ‘feminine’ environments like social services and education . Interestingly, under the vague umbrella term ‘business’, female leaders also came out on top.