A new Northwestern University meta-analysis, an integration of a large number of studies addressing the same question, shows that leadership continues to be viewed as culturally masculine. The studies found that women experience two primary forms of prejudice: They are viewed as less qualified or natural than men in most leadership roles, and when women do adopt culturally masculine behaviors often required by these roles, they may be viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous.
When generalizing about any population segment, especially such large and diverse segments as male and female leaders, there is bound to be a degree of inaccuracy and stereotyping. Still, research finds that predominantly communal qualities, such as being nice or compassionate, are more associated with women; and predominantly agentic qualities, such as being assertive or competitive, are more associated with men.
Marcia McNutt, head of the U.S. Geological Survey, talks to Washington Post On Leadership Editor Lillian Cunningham about why she hates the label of 'first female director of the USGS'.
For a long time, these agentic qualities have been culturally associated with successful leadership. But the 21st century is seeing the combination of new employees, new technologies and new global business realities add up to one word: collaboration. New workers are demanding it, advances in technology are enabling it, and the borderless organization of the future is dictating that future productivity gains can only be achieved by creating teams that are networked to span corporate and national boundaries.
These new business realities usher in the need for a new leadership model, one that replaces command and control with transparency and inclusion. This will increasingly highlight the value of a more feminine approach. Where in the past communal behaviors naturally favored by women may have been obstacles to leadership success, in a collaborative future they may well become an edge.
Women employ a more participative leadership style, are more likely to share information and power, and have strong relational skills that make them seem empathic to their staffs. In both laboratory studies and observations of real leaders, the opposite was often found with men. Male leaders tend to be more transactional in their business dealings, favor a more hierarchical and directive approach, and appear more typically to convey formal authority.
Research at the University of Southern California may offer one explanation for this, as it found a striking gender difference in brain function when under stress. The distinction appeared in the brain regions that enable people to simulate and understand the emotions of others. According to the research, stress seemed to increase the capacity for empathy in women while reducing it in males.
Generally speaking, female leaders tend to be more interactive, wanting to keep an encounter going until the emotional content has been played out. Conversely, men’s discomfort dealing with emotion (and their brain’s innate response to it) leads them to immediately search for solutions, rather than understanding that sometimes people—including colleagues and employees—just need to be heard.