A wide-ranging survey by the Pew Research Center — dropped in a midterm year when a record number of women have been nominated for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — has drawn attention for the stark numbers it showed.
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump examined its look at the “density” of women in leadership roles, with university presidents having the most women (a whopping 30 percent) and chief executive jobs having the fewest (just 5 percent). The New York Times looked at the differences between how the parties view the issue. NPR analyzed the differences in how male and female Democrats, or male and female Republicans, feel about the gender and leadership roles. (For instance, nearly half of GOP women say discrimination keeps women out of office, triple the 14 percent of GOP men who say the same.)
But the Pew survey also looks at another interesting disconnect. It examined the leadership skills people believe women bring to the job — and the results are both strikingly familiar and somewhat more favorable to women. Yet despite these votes of confidence in their qualities, women increasingly doubt voters are ready to elect them. Fifty-seven percent of women in the survey said that unreadiness is a major reason women are underrepresented in leadership roles, compared with 41 percent in 2014.
To be sure, many respondents to the survey (43 percent) said men and women have basically similar leadership styles. And among the 57 percent who said men and women have basically different styles, most said neither is better: 62 percent expressed no preference for either style.
But do a deep dive into the leadership attributes queried in the Pew survey, and women fared slightly better on almost all of them. Of the nine leadership qualities listed for political leaders, men fared better than women on only one (being willing to take risks); men and women were equally favored on working well under pressure. And of the 12 traits listed for business leaders, women fared better on all but three (risk-taking, being persuasive and making profitable deals). (The Pew survey is not clear in its write-up on how the list of traits was selected.)
Thirty-one percent said women were better at being honest and ethical — a leadership trait 91 percent said was essential for political leadership jobs — while 4 percent said men were better. Forty-two percent said women were better at working out compromises, compared with 8 percent who favored men, for a quality 78 percent said was essential in politics. (The remainder said they saw no difference.)
Meanwhile, 89 percent said creating a safe and respectful workplace was an essential quality for business leaders, and respondents favored women by far — with 43 percent saying women were better at this trait and 5 percent saying men were. Some differences were even bigger but were seen as less essential. Fifty-nine percent said women were better at being compassionate and empathetic, compared with 4 percent favoring men, but only 58 percent said it was a critical trait. Other differences were smaller: 84 percent said providing good pay and benefits was an essential quality; 28 percent said women were better at this trait, while 5 percent favored men.
The results aren’t altogether surprising for those familiar with studies about men’s and women’s leadership styles. It’s a complex, controversial area, filled with conventional wisdom and stereotypes and made more complicated by the expectations people have of how men and women “should” act as leaders. But there is some academic evidence that women tend to be more democratic, participative leaders — compared with the tendency of men to adopt a more “command-and-control” style. And other research has shown that female managers tend to motivate people more with positive incentives and more often practice what’s known by researchers as “transformational leadership” (acting as inspirational role models, fostering positive relationships, developing team members' skills and motivating people to go above and beyond).
The Pew survey is only a poll of public opinion, of course, not evidence of how men and women actually do act in different leadership situations. But despite the disconnect it shows between people slightly favoring women’s traits in leadership — while holding lingering doubts that people are ready to vote for them — it’s also encouraging to see majorities cite no difference between the two.
On nearly every leadership trait in the Pew survey (being compassionate and empathetic is a key holdout), most people see no difference between male and female leaders. A majority of respondents see no difference in men’s and women’s leadership styles. And again, while some see advantages on one side or the other, most see no difference in who is better at different policy issues, such as immigration or gun control. Electing more women may occur when more people are willing to embrace the differences they see in men’s and women’s leadership qualities, but it could also come when people manage to not see them at all.